By Ernie Palladino
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The name Masahiro Tanaka rolls off the tongue about as melodiously as a couple of other pinstriped Japanese League expatriates.
Fans should all hope that this young phenom with a splitter some scouts term “the best in the world” has the same kind of success on the mount that Hiroki Kuroda had the past couple years, or that Hideki Matsui had with a Yankee bat in his hands.
If Tanaka and his Beethovian six-pitch mound symphony can turn into a No. 1 or No. 2 rotation option immediately, his richness in texture and rhythm can transform last year’s also-ran into a contender. That will make worthwhile every cent of the $155 million — not including the $20 million posting fee — the Yanks shelled out to lure him away from the Dodgers and Cubs, his other suitors.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Just because a team spends a boatload of money for a Japanese import, it doesn’t make him a savior. As impressive as the 24-0 record and 30 straight winning decisions may be now, there’s a lot more to New York baseball than throwing nasty splitters, and there‘s a lot more to being a Japanese pitcher playing in New York than just showing up on the mound. Just ask Kei Igawa, whose handling of pinstriped pressures left something to be desired.
Like Americans who head over Tokyo-way to rebuild or finish up their careers, the Japanese player has to deal with a bit of culture shock when he first gets here. Tanaka, at the tender age of 25, may have an advantage there, since younger players tend to be more flexible mentally. The different foods, foreign language, and hustle-and-bustle of New York could sit better with him than another, older imported talent.
Not that many of the older players failed to adjust, but what lies between youthful ears does play into one’s environmental comfort. So Tanaka might fit right in with the on-field and off-field New York lifestyle.
We won’t know that for sure until he throws his first clunker, of course. Let’s see how the kid handles a stadium full of boos as angry fans fret about whether the kid is the real thing. Word is that Tanaka is a level-headed young man who can handle the bright lights, thanks in part to a pop-singer wife who has attracted her share of the spotlight back home. But this fellow has rarely experienced any kind of ire while pitching for the Rakuten Golden Eagles. All he’s ever done is win since he was an 18-year-old rookie.
That could change quickly as he adjusts to Major League hitters. We play more of a power game here, and the overall hitting talent here far exceeds what he threw against in Japan. He may encounter a learning curve; may even get lit up a few times as he learns the division. Fans will just have to understand.
Scouts talk about his poise. He’ll need it here.
And then, there’s the wear-and-tear on the young arm. No doubt, Joe Girardi will keep a close watch on his pitch count. But he will have to wonder about Tanaka’s previous workload, which once included a 160-pitch outing. Though he showed no signs of wearing down near the end of the season, there’s no saying he won’t when faced with the grind of pitching to legitimate American League hitters 1 through 9.
But these are the gambles a team makes when they go outside the country for talent. In all likelihood, Tanaka will work out, at least for a few seasons, and turn in the kinds of performances that bring home crowds to their feet. He could have immediate and prolonged success, thereby cementing himself as a New York fixture in much the same manner as, say, Derek Jeter.
Just don’t regard Tanaka as a savior just yet. For all the glowing scouting reports, he doesn’t throw as hard as Kuroda does at age 39, and nobody knows if he’ll attain the same comfort level with his surroundings as Matsui did between 2003 and 2009.
For now, look at him as a potentially great, certainly wise signing, well worth the price if only for the anticipation he’ll bring.
Just don’t look at him as a deliverer.
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