There are a number of reasons the Yankees didn't make the postseason in 2013. An unsustainable amount of injuries and reluctance to spend money last winter being two of the biggest. Going into the season, the pitching was something that many people looked at as strength of this team, and in many ways it was. They faltered down the stretch, but they were also one of the biggest reasons the Yankees found themselves a game out in the middle of September.
Eight teams right now are still worried about 2013. The Yankees are not one of them, and are already looking ahead to next year. In next year's case, the starting rotation as of right now looks... unimpressive. Here's where we're at right now.
1) CC Sabathia
2) Ivan Nova
Two spots filled. Andy Pettitte has officially retired. Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes are free agents and neither player is considered likely to come back (though Kuroda's status is up in the air). The Yankees have three rotation spots to fill going into next season.
One of which, so long as he's healthy, will probably be filled by Michael Pineda. The right-hander was the big piece coming back in the Jesus Montero deal, and he has yet to pitch in a game for the Yankees. The good news is he's still only 25 years old, and the last time he pitched he had one of the highest average fastball velocities in Major League Baseball. We'll see how that one plays out.
That leaves two spots. The free agent market for starting pitchers this offseason can be seen here. Potential internal options could be David Phelps, Adam Warren, Vidal Nuno, or if you like long shots, Manny Banuelos. Then there are international options, and this one, to me, is by far the most intriguing.
Masahiro Tanaka will be 25 years old on Opening Day next season, and is likely to be posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles this offseason. MLB Trade Rumors has Tanaka rated as the top available starting pitcher on the market this winter (ahead of Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, Hiroki Kuroda, and A.J. Burnett). He has also drawn comparisons to Yu Darvish in terms of ability, and is regarded as one of the best pitchers to ever pitch in Japan. Right now, he is indisputably the best pitcher in Japan.
Tanaka has a fastball consistently in the low 90s that he's capable of dialing up to 95 or 96. His splitter is by far his best pitch and his go-to strikeout pitch, and he'll also mix in a hard slider and a curve as well. There are differences between him and Darvish – Darvish throws a little harder and has a bigger differential between his fastball and offspeed pitches. Darvish will also go to a slow curveball more often than Tanaka will, but the similarities are one of the biggest reasons it isn't hard to believe Tanaka can be very successful in the major leagues. Below are the Japanese numbers for each. Full stats for both can be seen here and here.
Yu Darvish: 93-38, 1.99 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 2.4 BB/9
Masahiro Tanaka: 95-35, 2.32 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 1.9 BB/9
Darvish is slightly better for his Japanese career, but they are much closer in each of their respective final seasons in Japan (Tanaka is actually slightly better there after going 20-0 with a 1.24 ERA this season). The similarity that sticks out to me is the walks. Tanaka, even more so than Darvish, has excellent command to the point where he does not walk people. The last three seasons, his BB/9 has been 1.1, 1.0 and 1.3, respectively. That kind of command is essential in the major leagues.
There's the big question of the posting fee, and what it will take in order to win the rights to negotiate with Tanaka. Then obviously the contract itself that will count against the luxury tax. For comparison's sake, the Texas Rangers won the rights for Yu Darvish with a $51.7 million bid, and then went on to sign him to a six-year contract worth up to $60 million ($56 million guaranteed, $4 million in potential bonuses), and an AAV of under $10 million. The posting fee is a lot of money, but the contract itself that counts towards the team's payroll has turned into a steal for the Rangers thus far.
Tanaka is usually considered to be slightly under Darvish's level, so that might mean he can expect a slightly lower posting fee and a similar kind of contract. If this team is serious about plan 189 and getting under the luxury tax, Tanaka has tremendous upside at what could be a team-friendly cost.
Signing Tanaka could accomplish a lot of what the Yankees are trying to do this offseason. We know their goal is to stay under $189 million for the payroll. We know that they have at least two rotation spots that need to be filled. We know that they want to get younger. Well, Tanaka adds a 25-year-old potential top-of-the-line starting pitcher to a rotation that really needs it.
Is it a gamble? I suppose anything is a gamble. If Darvish's contract is any indication, Tanaka will cost less on the payroll than the likes of Matt Garza or other available free agents. If Darvish's success is any indication, then he also could be better than all of them. That could also leave more money to address some of the other holes on the team.
We'll see how it goes. This man will be pursued by a number of teams and the Yankees will probably at least be in the mix. With little talent in the farm system and free agency being a less effective route in recent years, these are the types of players the Yankees can't afford to get outbid by the Cubs on.
Note: Here you can see a video of Tanaka embarrassing a number of Asian hitters.