- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Masahiro Tanaka will settle it for Hal Steinbrenner and his customers once and for all. If the New York Yankees spend like mad to sign the Japanese star, blowing up their plans for fiscal restraint, the fans will accept Hal as a worthy successor to his old man.
And if the Yanks don't, their fans won't. Hal has said he will only approve a payroll below the $189 million luxury-tax threshold -- and the tens upon tens of millions in savings such a budget would bring -- if he was confident it would still allow him to field a championship-level team.
But as it stands right now, even after laying out $283 million for Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, Steinbrenner has to know he doesn't have a roster that can legitimately contend for a title. This isn't about the loss of his best player, Robinson Cano, who was given everything except a controlling interest in the Seahawks to sign with Seattle.
This is about the starting rotation, as vital in baseball as the quarterback is in football. Five years after he led the Yankees to a parade he kept seeing over and over in his dreams, CC Sabathia no longer qualifies as a credible ace of a team expecting to win it all. He's in the early hours of his decline, and the left arm that's logged nearly 3,000 regular-season and postseason innings of work and that managed a career-worst 4.78 ERA last year is screaming out for a demotion to the two-hole.
Of course, this is where Tanaka comes in. He might not turn out to be a major league ace, but among the available arms out there he sure looks like the closest thing to it. He's a 25-year-old free agent coming off a 24-0 season in Japan, and the highest bidder willing to pay his Rakuten Golden Eagles a $20 million posting fee will get him.
The Yankees need to be that highest bidder. More to the point, Hal Steinbrenner, son of George, needs to be that highest bidder. If he loses Tanaka to, say, Cano's Mariners in the name of staying a few nickels south of the luxury-tax threshold, the move (or non-move) would betray his claim that the pursuit of a title is more important to him than the bottom line. Steinbrenner effectively replaced Cano with three expensive bats, but there doesn't appear to be any replacing Tanaka at the top of the rotation. The Yankees aren't going from 85-77 to champions of the world with Sabathia, a 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova as their 1-2-3.
So according to one source close to the situation, the Yankees "will be heavily involved with Tanaka, very aggressive and at the top of the market, but won't get reckless and stupid."
In other words, the Yankees will be willing to give the right-hander a contract in excess of $100 million, but will overpay him only so much.
"There's still a lot of risk with Tanaka," the source said. "He's never pitched in the major leagues, he's thrown an enormous amount of pitches for a guy who's 25, and the ball is different in Japan.
"This isn't another Clayton Kershaw here, but there is a chance he can be special."
The Yankees have little choice but to gamble on that chance. Back in the day, George Steinbrenner took that gamble on a Japanese pitcher who was said to throw a 100 mph fastball, a pitcher compared to Nolan Ryan.
Boss George sent $3 million to the San Diego Padres in 1997 for the right to sign Hideki Irabu for $12.8 million over four years, a huge investment at the time that angered Andy Pettitte and other Yanks who figured the mystery man wasn't worth it. Steinbrenner already had a $62 million payroll, and his Yankees had just won their first title since 1978. He didn't need to add Irabu to a staff featuring Pettitte, David Wells and David Cone.
But in a phone interview before Irabu's first start on July 10, 1997, a start that created a mid-October buzz in the Bronx, Steinbrenner explained why he made an acquisition that felt as big as the acquisitions of Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield.
"A lot of this money for Irabu is coming out of my pocket," he said. "People don't understand that even when we won the World Series last year, we didn't make money. But we're still spending to give New York a great team."
Steinbrenner also pledged his unconditional support for Irabu that day. "I've never seen pressure on a rookie anywhere like there is on Irabu," the owner said. "I don't even think Joe [DiMaggio] went through this. But I'm going to be patient with this fellow. If Irabu gives up 10 runs, I'm still going to stand and applaud."
Irabu struck out nine over six and two-thirds innings to beat the Detroit Tigers in front of a Stadium crowd of 51,901, but two years later Steinbrenner was calling him a "fat p---y toad" and running him out of town.
Masahiro Tanaka can take comfort in knowing that Steinbrenner's far more even-tempered son, Hal, would never rip him like that in public. But will Tanaka ever get the chance to find out?
His agent, Casey Close, counts Derek Jeter as his signature client, and maybe the extra $2.5 million the Yankees just handed the captain for 2014 -- three years after the iconic franchise and iconic shortstop engaged in a bloody contract negotiation -- will help the Yanks' cause. But probably not. Close has name clients everywhere, and his job is to land Tanaka the best available payday.
Can Hal Steinbrenner fit that payday under his proposed $189 million ceiling?
"It's possible, but probably not without making a trade," the source said. "It's going to depend on what Tanaka gets."
It's also going to depend on whether Alex Rodriguez is suspended without pay for the season, a question that could be answered by week's end. But this much is already clear:
George Steinbrenner would sign Tanaka as surely as he signed Irabu, and as surely as he would've outbid the Pittsburgh Pirates, of all teams, last year and paid Russell Martin the money his son wouldn't pay him, luxury tax be damned.
Hal Steinbrenner left the Yankees without a catcher in 2013, and that was one reason they finished in a tie for third in the American League East. He can't leave them without an ace in 2014 and still claim to embrace the same win-at-almost-all-costs mentality that defined his old man.
To convince Yankees fans he cares, Hal must land Masahiro Tanaka.