The Yankees and Tanaka

The signing of Japanese pitching star Masahiro Tanana by the New York Yankees cannot have been a surprise to anybody who was paying even a little bit of attention. The $155 million, seven year contract complete with a player opt-out clause after four years may have a been bit more than Tananka was expected to get, but not by much. The Tanaka signing brings the value of high profile free agent contracts signed by the Yankees to about $440 million. Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann will join Tanaka as new and highly compensated Yankees when spring training starts in only a few weeks. The Yankees spending a lot of money on free agents is a dog bites man story. The Yankees, after not making the playoffs last year, announced they were going to be very active in the free agent market; and they kept their word.

It is more significant that despite all these high profile new additions, few people view the Yankees as likely contenders in 2014. This is not because of anti-Yankee bias or anything like that, but rather because of the state of the team. It should be remembered that during the off-season, in addition to these free agent signings, the Yankees also lost their best player Robinson Cano to free agency. More significantly, age, injuries and suspensions have reduced the Yankees to a team with a few stars, a lot of question marks and many holes. 

The most glaring of these is their infield. If everything goes well, for the Yankees, they will have about a league average infield, but if anything goes wrong the infield will be dreadful. There are, of course, many things that could go wrong. Derek Jeter could succumb to age or fail to come back from what was essentially a lost year. Mark Teixeira could continue the declining productivity that has defined his career since 2008. Brian Roberts could turn out to be a 36 year old second baseman who has not played well since 2009. It is also possible that the league will not change the rules, but will insist that the Yankees, like every other team, find somebody to play third base. The Yankees are unlikely to do very well with an infield like that even if, the starting pitchers have good years and the outfield with Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and Beltran emerges as one of the best in the league.

This off-season is yet another reminder for the Yankees that the game has changed a great deal and that their way of doing things, even when they do it better than anybody else is not going to work anymore. Free agency, scouting and baseball’s rules and economics around things like drafts, free agent compensation and the like have changed sufficiently in recent years that the Yankee model is almost obsolete. The failure of the Yankees to understand that and that the wealth of a team is measured not only by its ability to sign players to large contracts, but by its ability to produce top level talent, continues to set the Yankees back and allow them to ignore their biggest problems.

The biggest problem facing the Yankees is not their infield, but a farm system that has no top level prospects and that has been among the least productive in the game over the last five years or so. Addressing this problem is more important for their long term future than finding another free agent on which to spend a lot of money.

The Tanaka signing will come under a lot of scrutiny; and it is very likely that if he starts out slow or if the Yankees have the poor season many foresee, Tanaka, and his contract, will be blamed. The Tanaka signing, however, is on its own a good and defensible move. It is a lot of money, but that is the going rate for premier pitchers, especially relatively young ones, these days. Tanaka could disappoint, but the upside is high. Tanaka is young enough that he could be an important part of winning Yankee teams in 2016 or 2017. That is more than what can be said for all a but a very few other players on the team.

Given the rules governing the draft and how bonus money can be spent, the Yankees cannot use their financial resources to buy their way to a top farm system, but there are some things they can do. They can invest more in scouting and in player development in the minor leagues than other teams. They can also expand their international scouting and most importantly, recognize that first round draft picks, in today’s context, are often considerably more valuable than aging free agents.