The Yankees have made this mistake before, and his name was Kei Igawa. Spending $46 million to secure a star Japanese pitcher doesn’t guarantee wins in Major League Baseball. Those doubts resurfaced when the Yankees were pursuing Rakuten ace Masahiro Tanaka, but most have vanished like a Tanaka splitter before an MLB batter. Tanaka’s success, taken along with that of Cuban slugger Jose Abreu, is proving that international leagues consistently produce talent on par with the highest MLB standard.
Japanese aces past
As recently as 2009, it would be difficult to make the same argument. That was the year Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka came down to Earth after two years of quality MLB service. The man known as Dice K, who was once a Japanese ace said to feature an unhittable pitch known as a “gyroball,” began by landing Rookie of the Year honors in 2007 and placing fourth in Cy Young voting in 2008.
Then the wheels came off. Matsuzaka went 17-22 with an ERA ranging from 4.69 to 8.28 in his last four years with the Red Sox. When it was all said and done, Boston had spent $103 million for six years of Matsuzaka, with the pitcher throwing 200 innings just once.
If Dice K’s performance was disappointing, Igawa’s was disastrous. Inresponse to losing Matsuzaka to Boston, the Yankees inked Igawa to a five-year deal worth $46 million in annual salary and bidding fees. Igawa never had a single respectable year in the big leagues and was demoted to the minors before the end of his first season in New York. Igawa never made it back to Yankee Stadium. In 2011, The New York Times did a profile on Igawa and his situation, titled “The Lost Yankee.”
Once upon a time, Igawa was a strikeout leader who tormented Japanese league batters with a high fastball. In the United States, he was a decent minor-league pitcher who was the worst signing ever made by the Yankees. Yankees GM Brian Cashman didn’t pretend otherwise.
“It was a disaster,” Cashman told the Times. “We failed.” Judging by the early returns of Tanaka, Cashman won’t have to repeat any such phrases to describe his new ace, even with a price tag exceeding $150 million.
Abreu and Tanaka: No growing pains
Through his first six starts, Tanaka is 4-0 with a 2.54 ERA. A look at his walk and strikeout totals shows why his success is likely to be enduring. In 42.2 innings, Tanaka struck out 51 and walked just 6 batters (better than 8:1). He’s challenging hitters in every at-bat, and they’re not getting the best of him. Unlike Igawa, who featured a high heater MLB hitters crushed, Tanaka pitches downward. When hitters connect for a long ball, there’s usually no one on base.
Over on Chicago’s South Side, first baseman Jose Abreu has been thumping pitchers without mercy. Abreu was named AL Player of the Month for April. All he did was lead the MLB with 10 home runs, 32 RBI, and 19 extra-base hits. Unlike fellow Cuban sensations Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig, Abreu plays a position where he won’t run into an outfield fence or be forced to dive for balls in the gap. The power position of first base presents less danger for everyday players.
If there is any knock on Cespedes, it’s the injury bug that has kept him out of the lineup for Oakland. Puig’s exceptional talent had been overshadowed by his erratic behavior both on and off the field. The White Sox seemed to have signed a player with spectacular ability who knows how to handle himself with tact. For an investment of $68 million over six years, they may have made the bargain of the decade with Abreu.
Both highly touted superstars in their respective leagues, Abreu and Tanaka had their share of skeptics. Their terrific success may convince scouts and fans alike that international leagues present a worthy barometer of MLB talent. The contracts for international stars will likely rise accordingly.