Who is Masahiro Tanaka?
This has been the question that baseball has been asking since there was a buzz created around his coming to the United States; buzz that probably started around the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Tanaka is a 25 year old Japanese pitcher with a stunning arsenal of pitches, especially his split-finger, who has had quite a bit of success in Japan since his debut in 2007 at 18. In looking at his abilities, it is best to look at his NPB statistics against those of his two best contemporaries, Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka. It is fair to compare Tanaka to each of these pitchers because they were all similar ages when they started in the MLB (Darvish was also 25 and Matsuzaka was 26) and each was a top of the line pitcher in Japan.
For measurement’s sake, this will look at a couple key stats: innings pitched per start, WHIP, and strikeout to walk ratio. In Tanaka’s 7 year career in Japan, he averaged 7.6 innings per game started as compared to 7.7 for Darvish and 7.3 for Matsuzaka. When analyzing WHIP, Tanaka posted a 1.11 WHIP, while Darvish was at .985 and Matsuzaka was at 1.14. Finally, in the ever important category of strikeout to walk ratio, Tanaka was at 4.5, while Darvish marked at 3.75 and Matsuzaka was at 2.7. As we have seen, Darvish has rounded into a pretty good pitcher in the big leagues, even with some walk issues, and Matsuzaka was a solid part of the Red Sox rotation until his own pitch count issues did him in with Boston. Given these comparisons and the trends of statistics for each of these players, it is fair to say that Tanaka may not be as explosive as Darvish, but he is a very solid pitcher that will work the zone effectively and get the team deeper in the game.
Both Darvish and Matsuzaka had some walk issues as they transitioned to the MLB, as there is a huge difference between MLB players and NPB players in pitch recognition, and this may be a problem for Tanaka. If one were to hypothesize a reason for the walk issues for both Matsuzaka and Darvish, it was that they had such a huge gathering of pitches and it was tough to grab the strike zone with all of them, particularly their split finger fastballs which had a lot of NPB hitters swinging and missing as they dove out of the strike zone. As the splitter is a key pitch for Tanaka, this is absolutely something to watch during the 2014 season.
The good thing for Tanaka, though, is that he does not have the crazy assortment of pitches like Matsuzaka and he is more like Darvish with the basic four pitch arsenal. Once Tanaka is able to grasp the difference between the MLB and NPB strike zone, there is nothing to keep him from being a solid pitcher in the big leagues. Maybe he does not have the upside of Darvish, but it is not outlandish to predict that he will be a solid number two or fringe number one starter in the big leagues.
When will the Yankees realize how much they miss Mariano Rivera?
Mariano Rivera was the rock and foundation of the back end of the Yankees for the better part of two decades. It would be foolish to say that there will not be a difference made by his retirement, but the impact of his retirement will not be as great as one would assume, particularly for the closer position. In fact, when the Yankees lost Rivera for the 2012 season, they were fine with Rafael Soriano as an All-Star closer. David Robertson may or may not have as much of an impact as a veteran closer like Soriano, but it would be within the realm of possibility that the All-Star reliever Robertson can translate into the All-Star closer Robertson.
That being said, Robertson’s departure to the closer role leaves a large gap in the middle relief and set up roles. Both the inconsistent Joba Chamberlain and the ever reliable Boone Logan leaving will not help the 7th and 8th inning situation for the Yankees as well. The good news for the Yankees is that they signed Matt Thornton to take Boone Logan’s role and Shawn Kelley looked good in spurts while at the end of the game. The big unknowns are two young pitchers that may have a huge impact for the Yankees bullpen in 2014 and beyond. Cesar Cabral is a hard throwing lefty that the Yankees selected in the Rule 5 Draft in 2012 and lost for that season due to Tommy John surgery. Fortunately for the Yankees, the 23 year old came back during the 2013 season and was a strikeout machine in the minors, leading to a September call up to the Yankees, where he was solid in an 8 game audition. If he is able to work on his control, the 24 year old Cabral would be a huge boost to the bullpen.
Another young pitcher that the Yankees need to have make strides is Dellin Betances. The former top 50 prospect as a starter has bounced around a bit and had found a niche in the Scranton bullpen during the 2013 where he allowed one run and struck out 30 while minimizing his walks in his final 19 innings in the minor leagues. The imposing Betances should be able to fill the void left by Chamberlain in the Yankees bullpen and may even be a set up man by the time the stretch run comes around. The impact of Mariano Rivera’s retirement is may not be felt in the closer’s role, but the Yankees will need to shuffle around some players and hope for their younger pitchers to continue their development to fill the void left by the Hall of Fame closer.
How will the big spending of the Yankees affect the development of the younger players?
The Yankees were lauded in the late 1990s and early 2000s for having a seemingly never ending farm system that was fruit for big league stars and young players to involve in the blockbuster trades that the Yankees made. For a long time now, though, this well has dried up and the Yankees farm system is decent at best. There is a ton of opportunity in the minors, though, and the Yankees farm system could bloom into a top farm system if things go right. At the same time, players like Tyler Austin or Mason Williams could continue to regress and Michael Pineda or Manny Banuelos could stay injury prone and the farm system could be even worse off than they are now.
In answering the question posed above, the big spending allows the Yankees to let all of this play out. There will not be a ton of pressure on the younger players to move up the ladder quickly and, frankly, other than middle infielders and relievers, the Yankees do not have pressing needs at the big league level. This is not to say that the Yankees could not use a player like Pineda or Sanchez or Williams at the big league level, but rather it is that the Yankees have spent a lot of money on their big league roster and would like to see return on their investment. There are a lot of players in the minor league system for the Yankees that need a big 2014 season after disappointing 2013 seasons and the spending spree that the Yankees went on this offseason will allow these players to develop at a steady pace rather than feel the pressure of an imminent big league promotion.
What will the twilight of Derek Jeter’s career look like?
As with every person, at some point in life, your skills diminish and you have to walk away from what you were once good at. For Derek Jeter, this realism has to occur quite soon. In almost every way you look at it, Jeter has become weaker and his skill base is eroding. At the best point of Jeter’s career, he was a hitter that could control the field and spread the ball all over the place with his patented inside out swing. Now, he has lost a bit on his swing and cannot get around on the inside pitch as well as he did even two or three years ago and his contact has become weaker, with ground ball rates in the 60% range. Since his speed has also disappeared, this is a bad omen for the soon to be 40 year old Jeter.
What is even worse for Jeter is that his hitting is the reason that he is still playing baseball, as his range is nearly non-existent. It is sad to see the greats go out like Jeter will, but he needs to realize that his time has come to an end. The Yankees need to work diligently at finding a replacement for Jeter in the minors, as the free agent market for shortstops is usually thin, and it was good thing that the Yankees used an early pick on Gosuke Katoh who may be able to bridge the gap. As for the twilight of Jeter’s career here in 2014 and, possibly 2015, expect that he plays about 100 games at shortstop, another 20-25 at designated hitter, and is cautiously used in a way that can optimize what skills he does have left. If Jeter is able to keep his batting average in the high .270s or .280s, the Yankees will be able to accept that along with his leadership and knowledge of the game.
Why are the Yankees going to win 93 games?
The prediction on the Yankees is strongly based in the fact that the past two years that the Yankees have not had superb seasons and have had very good outputs. It is shocking to say that the Yankees have not had a great amount of success considering how much money they spend on their team, but that is the truth. At some point, Joe Girardi may need to be given some credit for managing the egos that the Yankees have and for making sure that they are at the top of their games. Last year’s team had no reason to win 85 games and there is more talent on this team. There are many that are not fans of the Yankees having a lineup that is full of so many older players and, at my count, five different players that will need to play DH this year for some reason or another, but there is a lot to like about this Yankees team. Although Jacoby Ellsbury was a very big reach, all of the other pick ups that the Yankees made this offseason were smart in a financial and player personnel way. This year, a lot of the holes that were there with the Yankees of 2013 should be filled and the Yankees will return to the playoffs.
5 You Know:
1. Alfonso Soriano
2. CC Sabathia
3. Hiroki Kuroda
4. Carlos Beltran
5. Jacoby Ellsbury
5 You Will Know:
1. Masahiro Tanaka
2. Jose Ramirez
3. Mark Montgomery
4. Slade Heathcott
5. Zolio Almonte
5 You Should Remember:
1. Eric Jagielo
2. Tyler Austin
3. Gary Sanchez
4. Mason Williams
5. Ian Clarkin
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