NEW YORK -- Fear not, New York Yankees fans, for Masahiro Tanaka has no plans to perform within the boundaries of Brian Cashman's conservative projection. A man who rents out a Boeing 787 Dreamliner on a whim, charters it for his wife, his toy poodle and a few fortunate others for the flight from snowy Tokyo to snowy New York, is a man who sees a lot of things when he looks into his mirror in the morning.
A No. 3 starter is not one of them.
"There weren't many [planes] to choose from," was Tanaka's explanation Tuesday -- through an interpreter -- of the $195,000 gift to himself after the nightmare commute to Narita Airport, reported to be in excess of eight hours. If he wanted to pitch for the biggest team in the biggest market, hey, why not touch down in the biggest available plane?
At the start of a Yankee Stadium news conference the team called its largest since Hideki Matsui's in Times Square in 2003 (take that, A-Rod, 2004), Cashman said he couldn't help but think on the drive in that the old man, George Steinbrenner, would've been proud of the occasion.
Chances are, the Boss would've been most proud of Tanaka's apparent opinion of himself. Steinbrenner ended up calling his own prized recruit, Hideki Irabu, a crude name after the advertised "Nolan Ryan of Japan" fizzled out, and the owner was never fun to be around when he suspected one of his pitchers didn't have the requisite fire to win in New York.
But at 25, coming off a 24-0 season back home, Tanaka projects no such vibe of uncertainty. The Yankees delegation that met with him on the recruiting trip to Los Angeles came away thinking the right-hander planned on being something beyond the ace of the staff.
"The way he talked," team president Randy Levine said, "it was clear that he wants to be the best, that he wants to prove he's one of the greatest pitchers in the world. He didn't say it in an arrogant way, just in a confident way. And that's why he wanted to come here."
Tanaka wasn't going to say it in any language at the Stadium, but he has no interest in being what Cashman called him Friday on ESPN Radio -- "a solid, potential No. 3 starter." Asked if he considered himself an ace, Tanaka said, "Being an ace is something that ... other people label. Basically, what I just want to do is go out there and compete and do my best."
Only Tanaka said plenty more with his grand entrance at JFK than he could in his first comments in a Yankees jersey and cap. Landing in his outsized Japan Airlines jet, Tanaka was as inconspicuous as a Wild West cowboy barreling through the swinging doors of a saloon. Now it's time to start firing away and, frankly, to start the process of taking CC Sabathia's job.
Some teams competing against the Yankees for Tanaka's services assured him he could "transition" into their rotations. "He didn't like that," Levine said. "He wanted to take the ball on Day 1, and that told us a lot about him."
That's why the Yankees invested $175 million in Tanaka, including the $20 million posting fee, or the same amount of money offered Robinson Cano, who preferred the $240 million bid from Seattle. They know Sabathia, 33, is no longer a viable ace on a team with World Series aspirations. They understand that seven consecutive seasons of at least 200 innings pitched, including five of more than 230 innings, have compromised Sabathia's left arm and made him much more suitable for the No. 2 slot.
Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova are strong middle-of-the-rotation options, nothing more, and the competition for the fifth spot looks a little like the ungodly NBA scramble for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. So the Yankees can't afford for Tanaka to be anything but an ace by the end of the summer.
"He has a great deal of ability," Cashman said. "We could be getting more than a [No.] 3. Maybe it's a 2, maybe even it's a 1 at some point."
It's got to be a 1 at some point, sooner rather than later.
Hal Steinbrenner is paying for just that. For years he hoped to bring the 2014 Yankees in under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold to save the franchise tens upon tens of millions (perhaps as much as $100 million) that the Boss's son swore the team would ultimately spend on talent.
But Hal recognized that his pitching staff was weak, and that his customers were ready to hit him over the head with his father's legacy if he didn't blow past the tax line to ensure his third-place team returned to the playoffs. And after he was done bringing in Tanaka at $155 million, Jacoby Ellsbury at $153 million, Brian McCann at $85 million and Carlos Beltran at $45 million, Steinbrenner had every right to say the following, Cano or no Cano:
"I think we've got a championship-caliber team."
Joe Girardi might not want to hear that any more than Mike Woodson wanted to hear it from his owner, James Dolan, but at least Steinbrenner has the roster to support the claim. Tanaka doesn't make that roster complete, but he does make it October worthy.
Girardi won the World Series the last time Steinbrenner spent wildly in free agency, and today's Tanaka is the equivalent of the 2009 Sabathia, the one signing above all that absolutely has to work out. Once Irabu's catcher in the Bronx, Girardi said that Japanese players "feel a little bit more weight representing their country," and that it's his job as manager to make certain Tanaka doesn't put too much pressure on himself.
In fact, that was the whole point of Cashman's claim that Tanaka is a game manager, or innings-eater, in the making. The GM doesn't really believe it. For the sake of a smoother preseason ride, he's just hoping the fans and the news media play along.
But the Yankees' scouts have already spoken, raving about Tanaka's split-fingered fastball and his ability to hit 97 on the radar gun when he needs to. Cashman conceded the new guy does "have a presence about him," one that reminded the GM of El Duque Hernandez's, and one that reminded Levine of Hideki Matsui's.
Of course, both are Yankees postseason heroes.
"I wanted to come here and win the championship," Tanaka said. "The Yankees are a team that's always in that type of situation. I understand there's a lot of pressure here, but I just wanted to come here and see how far I can go."
He made quite a first impression, too, on his way to a news conference Cashman called "Yankee big" and "Steinbrenner big." The dreamer rented a Dreamliner for his flight above the clouds, and no, there isn't a No. 3 starter alive who would've ever done that.