Yankees Hot Stove: What can be learned from Kei Igawa?

Fellow countryman Masahiro Tanaka takes on Brazil in the World Baseball Classic - Koji Watanabe

The Yankees once took a risk on Japanese pitching and got burned. What lessons, if any, can be learned from this failure with the possibly of a Masahiro Tanaka signing looming?

Once upon a time, the Yankees shopped for another Japanese ace. On November 29, 2006, they placed a bid of $26 million for Hanshin Tigers ace Kei Igawa. While he wasn't as highly regarded as Daisuke Matsuzaka, he was still considered to be a middle-of-the-rotation possibility.

At 27 years old, Igawa had already accomplished much in his Japanese career. In 2002, he finished third in the Central League in ERA and led the league in strikeouts with 209. In 2003, he won the MVP and the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young award, the Eiji Sawamura Award, due to his 2.80 ERA and 179 strikeouts. He did experience performance issues in 2004 and 2005, hovering around a 3.75 ERA, but the stuff was still there.

The question, though, was: could this translate into Major League success? Some scouts thought so. One NL Central scout, courtesy of Prospect Insider, described him as such:

"He does make me think of (Jarrod) Washburn... He’s got a little swagger in him, more than Matsuzaka, at least demonstrably. He’ll sit right in the 90 mph range until he needs a big strikeout and than he reaches back for added gas. But, like Washburn, he throws quite a few fastballs up in the zone and if he misses with it, it gets hit, and that will be big for him in the U.S.... He attacks hitters, and very aggressively... It’s not a secret that he’s going to come after hitters, but as soon as the batter thinks he’s got it figured out, he gets a pretty good change thrown at him out of nowhere. Igawa is a pretty adept at mixing things up effectively, while doing a decent job of staying within himself. At times he’ll try and throw one 120 miles per hour or throw the greatest breaking ball ever, but he’s been able to fend off those urges, at least the past two years."

I think this, looking back, can be seen as the best case scenario for his projection on the Major League level. Not everyone was convinced, though. David Wright, quoted in MLB Trade Rumors, said this about Igawa:

"I just don't know... I'd have to see him when he's in midseason form. You send a guy up there after a month layoff and you can't get a handle on a guy. But as far as a lefty goes, he has a sneaky fastball. I thought he threw, for a lefty, an average to above-average fastball, an above-average changeup, and his slider was a little flat. But with a month off, who knows? Could be any number of reasons."

I know that hindsight is twenty-twenty, but even given this bit of information, Igawa looked to have the ceiling of an average pitcher, but could also be a lemon. And for a $26 million posting fee and a five year, $20 million contract, the Yankees got the latter. He only got to pitch 71.2 innings in MLB, compiling a 6.66 ERA (a very devilish ERA) and 6.19 FIP. He was then subsequently sent down into the Minor Leagues and was never heard from again.

What, though, does this mean in regards to the possible signing of Masahiro Tanaka? Some may consider the Igawa signing to be a cautionary tale, but that doesn't mean that Japanese talent should be ignored. It does show one thing, though: Japanese pitching does not always translate in MLB, and definitely not to the same magnitude as in Japan. But just because one investment went sour doesn't mean that there should never be another investment in Japanese pitching again.

If the Yankees are going to take a risk, they might as well take a risk with a pitcher with the best credentials available. There were a number of issues with Kei Igawa: he had already peaked, the scouting projections were not that optimistic, and he was meant to be a cheaper alternative to Matsuzaka. In this case, the Yankees were trying to make a shrewd move and subsequently got burned. If a team wants to go for a Japanese pitcher, then it should be of the utmost caliber to give the best chance of success.

But because Tanaka is the best pitching talent, that also means he will demand the highest market price. So, really, the comparison between Igawa and Tanaka is apples vs. oranges; while Tanaka is high-ceiling but a very high risk, Igawa was a mid-ceiling and (relatively) low risk. The Yankees decided that it is better to fail on the best talent then to fail on a smaller scale. They may fail four times out of five on an Igawa-esque talent, but less so on Tanaka. If Tanaka does not pan out, then it could further strap their finances for years to come. And if they succeed, they'll have a premier talent in the prime of his career leading the pitching staff.

Kei Igawa established the fact that the risk exists--there is a possibility that Tanaka will turn into a pumpkin, but it is a chance the Yankees are willing to make to put them into playoff contention. If they do not take the plunge and fall short of the playoffs, then Tanaka's contract is chump-change compared to the lost playoff revenue. The Yankees can't afford not to sign him.

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