What Yankees' signing of Masahiro Tanaka means for Red Sox, Jon Lester, AL East

January 22, 2014 - 5:51 am
On Tuesday evening, multiple baseball officials guessed that Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka -- in the wake of a historic 24-0 season with a 1.27 ERA in the NPB -- might receive a six-year, $120 million deal on top of the $20 million posting fee that would be required to land the 25-year-old. That estimate turned out to be light, as Tanaka reportedly landed a seven-year, $155 million deal with the Yankees. Combined with his $20 million posting fee, that suggests that the Yankees are willing to spend $25 million a year over seven years for the pitcher considered the best on the market this offseason -- though one whom some evaluators view as more of a No. 2 or No. 3 starter in Major League Baseball than a true ace. The cost of a truly elite starter? That bar was set when Clayton Kershaw -- also 25, and one year from reaching free agency -- inked a seven-year, $215 million ($30.7 million per year) extension with the Dodgers. Some implications for the Red Sox: -- First, if Tanaka makes a smooth transition to the States to become at least a solid frontline pitcher (No. 3 or better), the shape of the Yankees' rotation looks significantly more impressive as they look to derail Boston in the division. Tanaka would join left-hander CC Sabathia and right-hander Hiroki Kuroda in New York's front three, with options like Ivan Nova and David Phelps available to round out the rotation as back-end starters. Of course, that rotation only looks impressive if Sabathia bounces back from his career-worst 2013 (4.78 ERA with a career-high 1.2 homers per nine innings) and if Kuroda shows that his season-ending rut (0-6, 6.56 ERA) was an aberration. With an effective and healthy Sabathia, Kuroda and Tanaka, the Yankees once again would have credible ambitions in the American League East. Moreover, Tanaka represents the Yankees' breach of an interesting firewall. With the pitcher now inked for his monster deal, New York will fly past the luxury tax threshold of $189 million for 2014 (there had been at least some question, in the wake of the season-long suspension of Alex Rodriguez, of whether New York might be able to slip below that barrier and thus put itself in line to receive a significant revenue sharing rebate). With that threshold breached, and the revenue sharing rebate out of the picture, New York could decide to continue flexing its financial muscle in a winter that has already seen the team spend $153 over seven seasons on Jacoby Ellsbury, $85 million (over five years) on Brian McCann and $16 million on a one-year deal for Kuroda. The Yankees could decide to further reinforce their rotation with the available pool of free agent starters such as Matt Garza, Ervin Santana or Bronson Arroyo. In other words: This is a back-to-the-future sort of offseason for the Yankees, the most significant show of the team's financial might since it acquired Sabathia (7 years, $161 million), Mark Teixeira (8 years, $180 million) and A.J. Burnett (5 years, $82.5 million) in the offseason following the 2008 season -- a flurry of moves that netted New York a championship in 2009. -- The Sox' willingness to make something other than an all-out run at Tanaka served as an indication of the team's comfort with its rotation in the short- and long-term. The team has six viable veterans (Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Felix Doubront, Jake Peavy, Ryan Dempster) along with a major league-ready swingman in Brandon Workman. Behind that group, the team has prospects Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes and Henry Owens coming in the pipeline. Whereas the Yankees, in a sense, had to pursue expensive open-market options such as Tanaka because of the absence of upper levels pitching prospects, the Sox -- who made contact with Tanaka's agent, Casey Close, but who ultimately sidestepped the sort of long-term entanglement that the Yankees made -- had the choice of whether or not to make a significant run at Tanaka in order to round out their rotation. They chose not to, a reflection of the state of their prospect inventory. While the team has no illusions that every one of its prospects will emerge as a potential mid-rotation big league starter, there is a sense of strength in numbers (more on that here). Even with the obscenely high attrition rate for top pitching prospects, the Sox believe that they have enough bulk that quantity will beget quality in the coming seasons. Hence, the team is likely by 2015 to have a new rotation member who is getting paid $500,000 or so ... at a time when Tanaka will be getting more than 40 times that salary. "I don't know if you can ever overestimate the impact or the value that young pitching can have," Red Sox manager John Farrell observed at the Sox' Rookie Development Program last week. "Today, not knowing who of those guys are going to establish themselves as being the next members of our rotation, we feel good about the group that we have. We don't know specifically who it will be. Knowing that it's a game of attrition and we're going to have to continually provide a supply of big league arms, that's where, when you consider what we have at the big league level, yet the number of quality players that are making their way through the system, (Cherington) has done an incredible job of sustaining that pipeline." -- While the Sox rotation appears to be in relatively good shape for the long haul, the cost of an extension for Jon Lester seemingly keeps rising. A team was willing to spend $25 million a year for the rights to Tanaka, a speculative commitment on a pitcher who will be making an adjustment to a new league, country and culture. If indeed the consensus evaluation of the right-hander is that of a pitcher who falls short of the designation of a No. 1 starter, certainly, it's hard to imagine Lester failing to take notice. The comparison isn't quite an apples-to-apples one. Lester is entering his final year of team control, with the team having exercised its no-brainer $13 million option on his services for 2014. In one sense, he's in a different class from Kershaw and Tanaka, given that Lester turned 30 this month. And Lester has undergone something of a career transition that Kershaw and Tanaka have not yet had to make. In 2013, however, the fruits of his evolution as a pitcher became apparent, as noted by GM Ben Cherington during the World Series. "He's matured into a pitcher on the mound, and matured into a man off the mound. He's taking full responsibility as a leader of this rotation," Cherington said in October. "On the mound, he's evolved into a pitcher. He's changing speeds on both sides of the plate, he's using his whole arsenal. He's not 25 anymore, so he can't just reach back and have 97 whenever he wants it, but when he did that, he could probably be a little one-dimensional and still have success. But we're seeing him turn into a pitcher, like the good ones do at this age. He's kind of reached that second gear in a career. That's what it's looks like is happening. "Like a lot of pitchers go through at some point, adjustments have to be made. There are things you can do at 24, 25 that are different than when you're 30. To stay good, you have to adjust. You see that happening. You see those adjustments being made." In other words, Lester looked like an elite pitcher in 2013. And in the offseason of 2013-14, elite pitchers are getting paid ... a lot. When the Sox sit down with Lester in spring training about a possible extension for a player who has spent every day of his pro career in their organization, even an annual salary of $20 million a year is starting to look light for a pitcher who, as currently situated, is in line with Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer to be at the head of the free agent class.