Yankees still a fourth-place team
Masahiro Tanaka isn't good enough to make New York a playoff club
Unless you were deep in the heart of the Amazon or making that final ascent to the summit of Mount Everest, you probably heard that the New York Yankees signed a pitcher on Wednesday. Not just any pitcher, mind you, but Masahiro Tanaka, the import from Nippon Professional Baseball, and the best player available in a free-agent market that's already seen most of the big names sign contracts.
You also may have heard that a lot of currency was involved in making this deal happen, $155 million, spread out over seven years, a lot of money even for an MLB team in 2014.
If the Yu Darvish contract and Darvish's performance had not already done it, the bidding war for Tanaka and the eventual dollar figure of the contract officially closes the door on the era in which players from Japan's professional league were considered novelties. From now on, NPB's top stars will be looked at as comparable to very good MLBers, and their contracts will continue to reflect this reality. But that's an article for another day.
You're here for the bottom line -- specifically, the real-world effect on the bottom line of the Yankees' win total in 2014. So let's get cracking.
The Yankees are a team facing difficult challenges going into the 2014 season. A surprising frugality set over the organization the last few years thanks to the team's obsession with getting the payroll under the luxury tax limit in order to "reset" the penalties. An aging team, the Yankees did little last winter to staunch the bleeding of talent due to departures and age. The team still managed to put together 85 wins and stay relevant until the closing weeks of the season, but it didn't seem so much as a heroic battle in which the Yankees simply came out on the losing end, but more akin to an aging lion in the African veldt, giving one last weak roar as the jackals take his kill.
Where did the Yankees stand before the signing? To get an idea, I fired up the old ZiPS projection system and the Monte Carlo simulator and used 2014 projections to get an estimate of the team's chances of contention. Before the Tanaka signing, the Yankees' mean projected record came out at 80-82, the worst of the five teams in the AL East. There's a great deal of uncertainty, and a team projected to have 80-win talent may actually have 85- or 75-win talent. Or possibly even 90- or 70-win talent. That's the use of a Monte Carlo system, putting together all these uncertain probabilities.
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Giving James Shields a long-term contract for big money wouldn't be a good idea.