On Colin Cowherd's ESPN Radio show on February 7, 2014, New York Yankees' General Manager, Brian Cashman talked with guest host, Ian O'Connor. Cashman stated on the show that he expects Masahiro Tanaka to be a solid "number 3 starter" in the rotation, and he wasn't just talking about this season - he was saying that the Yankees will be happy with Tanaka being a solid #3 guy in the rotation for the next few years.
Pretty expensive for a 3rd starter. Nonetheless, we happen to agree with him, given the past performance of pitchers out of Japan. Hideki Irabu, for instance, would have killed to be a "solid #3 starter" - emphasis on the "solid" because he was anything but solid... and that's not a fat joke. In fact, remember when George Steinbrenner called Irabu a "fat toad"? Anyway, we digress. Back to Tanaka and other Japanese pitchers.
Hideo Nomo was money his first 2 seasons in the US, then he was pretty terrible for 7 consecutive seasons... then he had 2 good seasons again before going into the proverbial tank permanently.
Daisuke Matsuzaka has been a complete bust since coming over, too. Even in his best season here when he posted a 2.90 ERA (in 2008), he still had a 1.324 WHIP which is, actually, quite terrible. As we state on the WHIP Cheat Sheet page, a pitcher's WHIP is the best indicator of his worth, as Matsuzaka's career stats show.
By comparison, Hideo Nomo came onto the scene in the US at the age of 26. His stats in Japan were as follows: 3.15 ERA, 1.317 WHIP, 10.3 K/9 over 5 seasons in Japan.Nomo then had 2 good seasons with th eDodgers before the league figured him out.
As another, more-recent comparison, Yu Darvish spent 7 seasons pitching in Japan, starting at age 18, just like Tanaka. Darvish's ERA over that span was 1.99 (including 5 consecutive seasons under 2.00), 0.985 WHIP and 8.9 K/9. When Darvish came over to the United States, his ERA jumped to 3.90 in his first season (still not terrible), and then he improved (unlike other former-Japanese-League pitchers) in his second year to 2.83. His WHIP also improved from 1.280 to 1.073, and his K/9 actually improved, too, going from 10.4 K/9 to 11.9 K/9 and leading the league in total strikeouts.
Most importantly, Tanaka's stats are more-consistent with Darvish's, and this leads us to believe that Masahiro Tanaka will develop in much the same way as Darvish. Yu Darvish took his lumps in his first season while he figured out batters. Taking Hideo Nomo, by comparison, the league took 2 seasons to figure him out, and once they did, he took years to recover and learn how to get ahead of hitters again.
If you're in an auction draft, this gives you a chance at him no matter what. Depending on the other pitchers you get in your auction, we would be fine with spending anywhere from $5-$20 on Masahiro Tanaka. We know that's a big window, but think about it: If you've already spent money on Kershaw, Strasburg and Kimbrel, you're not going to spend another $20 on an unproven rookie, no matter what his Japanese stats were. However, if you get out-bid for the big-name pitchers, or if you spend big on a bunch of offensive power hitters, you're going to have to shop around for bargain, sleeper and comeback pitchers. Suddenly, spending $20 on Masahiro Tanaka doesn't look so bad when your other options are Kyle Kendrick, Ryan Dempster and a scrub to be named later. Now, Tanaka might be the best potential pick left in the draft. You know that Dempster has a career 4.35 ERA and 1.432 WHIP... you don't know what you're gonna get out of Tanaka, but the upside potential is much, much better than a lot of the other options.