Masahiro Tanaka a worthwhile risk for fantasy players
Masahiro Tanaka became the latest, most wealthy Japanese import last week, when the Yankees bestowed upon him a seven-year, $155-million deal to front their rotation. There's little doubt that Tanaka was the most attractive free agent on the market. Guys like Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez are known quantities. Tanaka, meanwhile, put up a run of dominance in the Nippon Professional Baseball League that echoed what Yu Darvish did before he crossed the Pacific. While there's room to debate if Tanaka was worth $22 million annually (plus the $20 million posting fee), he was certainly the only free agent with an "ace" ceiling. In the second installment of our Burning Questions series, we ask: Will his game translate to Major League Baseball, and where should fantasy owners slot him among starting pitchers?
Before we get to comparisons, let's start with Tanaka's repertoire. He primarily features a fastball, splitter and slider, with the splitter being a particularly devastating pitch. Check out the splits he throws in this video at the 5-second and 36-second mark. Those are pitches which would make Tanaka's countryman and fellow splitter artist Hisashi Iwakuma proud. Tanaka doesn't have Darvish's fastball -- his is going to sit in the low-90s, though it can reach up to 94 or 95. However, if you're worried about his fastball registering in the majors, check out how he blows away the final two batters to clinch the Japan Series for Rakuten last year.
But while his repertoire doesn't match up with Darvish's, the two conveniently played professionally in Japan from age 18 through 24. This allows us an easy comparison. Here are Tanaka's numbers, and here are Darvish's.
The first thing that jumps out is that Tanaka is not nearly the strikeout pitcher Darvish is. A career K/9 of 8.5 is nothing to sneeze at, but Darvish pushed up near nine strikeouts per nine innings, and fanned more than a batter per inning in four of his last five seasons in Japan before joining the Rangers. Darvish also had a superior ERA and WHIP, posting five sub-2.00 ERAs and four sub-0.90 WHIPs. Tanaka issued fewer free passes and had a better K/BB ratio, but he still appears to be a step or two behind where Darvish was when he made the transition to the majors.
Tanaka and Darvish were also a level above guys like Hideo Nomo, Hiroki Kuroda and Hisashi Iwakuma in Japan. Of course, all three of them experienced, or are still experiencing, success in the majors. In fact, both Kuroda and Iwakuma had the best professional seasons of their career in the United States. That Darvish has become one of the most unhittable pitchers in the league and seemingly lesser talents have done well for themselves on this side of the Pacific doesn't guarantee success for Tanaka, but it should give the fantasy community enough confidence that he can be a weapon in his rookie year.
Of course, we have to also take into account his environment in New York. Pitching for an AL East team remains a tough task. According to ESPN's park factors, three of the five parks in the division, including Yankee Stadium, were in the top-10 in allowing runs. Yankee Stadium boosted home runs by 10 percent over the average last season. While this alone shouldn't sway you from Tanaka, his fantasy outlook would be a bit rosier if he landed with the Cubs, the team that was reportedly second in the running for his services.
So where exactly does Tanaka slot in? First of all, let's remember that this is the last week of January. There's still a lot of time before any of us are sitting around a draft table for real, and projections and feelings could change depending on what transpires over the next eight weeks. For now, I'm planting my flag at No. 37. That places him in the same neighborhood as Jered Weaver, Jeff Samardzija, Francisco Liriano, CC Sabathia and Johnny Cueto on my board.
Spring training results don't matter for most of the players we care about for fantasy purposes, but Tanaka is an exception to that rule. He could definitely climb up the rankings depending on what we see from him in February and March, but for now he's the type of guy I'd like to have as my No. 3 starter.
MORE BURNING QUESTIONS:
• Part I: Can Starlin Castro bounce back in 2014?
• Part II: Is Masahiro Tanaka a worthwhile risk for owners?
• Part III: Should Doug Fister be considered a top pitcher?
• Part IV: Is Eric Hosmer a top-10 first baseman?
• Part V: How will Chris Davis follow up his successful 2013?
• Part VI: Will Brandon Phillips rack up 100+ RBI again?
• Part VII: What can owners expect from Josh Donaldson?
• Part VIII: Is Hanley Ramirez worth the risk of injury?
• Part IX: Can Josh Hamilton rediscover his power stroke?
• Part X: How should owners value Javier Baez, George Springer?