By Sweeny Murti
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Most baseball people I speak to believe the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes will go all the way up to the January 24 deadline. So that leaves us a couple more weeks to dissect this international phenomenon.
To learn more about the next potential star import from Japan, I recently got some thoughts from someone who has watched Tanaka up close for the past five years.
Darrell Rasner pitched for the Yankees in parts of three seasons from 2006-08, and for the last five years he has been a teammate of Tanaka's with the Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan's Pacific League. Pitching as the closer last year Rasner racked up 17 saves before season-ending Tommy John surgery in September. Speaking from his home in Nevada, Rasner offered up thoughts on his experiences with Tanaka.
SM: We all know Tanaka went 24-0 last year. How good was he?
DR: He was awesome, and I don't even know if that's the right word to describe him. He was fun to watch. I became a big fan of his (last year), of how he worked. He's special. You see this with some pitchers, they have this extra gear. You know, I don't have that extra gear, and it's really fun watching these pitchers that when they get in trouble they can go up that extra bit and get outs that way with just pure stuff.
I watch him, his mentality, he's a bulldog. He doesn't need to prove anything else there. He almost at times goes easy and just plays with (hitters). He'll go out there and get guys out at 70 percent. I just think he's really special, super fun watching him.
SM: When you say he has an extra gear, you mean an extra 3 or 4 miles per hour to get somebody out?
DR: I'm talking like an extra 10! I watch him pitch at 88-89 or 90-91, and then I'll see him jump up to 98-99 when he needs it. I saw him do this (last) year, and there was one game that really stands out to me. I wanna say it was the eighth or ninth inning and he was 140 pitches in and he needed a strikeout, and he jumped it from that 90 to about 98-99 and punched the guy out. It's just impressive watching the guy, his mentality and his know-how on pitching, especially being so young.
SM: Only 25 years old. You've seen him for five years now, how has he grown into this?
DR: He's always been great, he's always been special. But this year I saw him learn how to mess with guys' timing---he would do a quick pitch, change speeds. He really has a good feel right now of what he's doing. Just overall it's been really fun watching him, (last) year especially.
SM: Scouts I've spoken to say his fastball command isn't just "good," it's "outstanding." Is that accurate?
DR: Absolutely. He can throw on the corner, he can go off an inch or two inches. I think he's probably going to have to knock down a couple pitches. Most Japanese pitchers, I'm sure you've seen Yu Darvish, he has about 12 different pitches! The catcher doesn't have that many fingers, ya know? I personally believe he's got four major league quality pitches that he can throw for strikes any time and get big league hitters out right now.
SM: We've heard about his fastball and his splitter, what else?
DR: He throws a curveball, a slider, a cutter, a sinker, a changeup. He really has too many pitches. It's just a matter of a pitching coach getting a hold of him, whittling those down to four quality pitches. And he can do that I think. He's very coachable.
SM: What was it like to watch him never lose a game last year?
DR: I was in the bullpen the last couple years, and when he pitches he doesn't give the ball up. I was closing and you'd almost have the night off every time he pitches. He's the ace and he gives the bullpen that break. He could always get us on track too. If we needed that big win he would come through. Like I said it was a night off for the bullpen. We knew when he was going out there that he was going nine innings and he was going to win.
SM: Having been around Tanaka as long as you have, what can you tell us about his personality and his makeup?
DR: He's a good teammate. I've watched him last couple years and he's studied English, he's worked really hard on that. He was very good with us foreign guys (one-time Yankees Andruw Jones and Casey McGehee and former Phillies/Astros/Royals pitcher Brandon Duckworth also played for Rakuten in 2013). Just him working English and trying to communicate with the non-Japanese speaking players was really cool. A great teammate, fun in the clubhouse. His work ethic is awesome and just all around good guy, good heart.
SM: Does he have the personality to play in New York?
DR: I think he does. New York is a tough market, but I think by him pitching in Japan he has had the entire country watching him, so I really don't think it's going to be a huge deal. I really hope he does end up with a big market team like the Yankees, I think it would be awesome.
SM: And you think he'll be successful in the majors?
DR: I don't think anybody is ever going to be 24-0, especially in the big leagues. There are just too many quality hitters and you're going to have your off nights. I just think his mentality and his heart and his bulldog nature will win a lot of games for him when he has those off nights. Again, he has four great pitches. I think his stuff is probably not as electric as Darvish and he's not as physical as Darvish, but he knows how to pitch and he's young. He knows how to spot the ball and change speeds. To change hitters timings, I don't think you see that with guys being that young when you can mess with that stuff. I think he's going to do very well.
SM: We hear a lot about the differences between the baseballs used in the U.S. and in Japan. Is there anything to that?
DR: The ball is different. The major league ball is a lot slicker and a little bit bigger. I don't know what it is, but (Japanese baseballs) do have some (grip) to them. But (Tanaka) plays catch with the major league ball and throws bullpens with the major league ball. I personally don't think its going to be a big thing for him. His competitiveness will get him through little things like that that other guys complain about. He's going to get through those.
This is something he really wants to do, and I'm glad he's getting the chance. He has nothing else to prove there, he's just toying with the guys so I think this will be a good challenge for him.
SM: Yankee fans still remember how Kei Igawa failed. You pitched with Igawa in New York and at AAA, so how are they different?
DR: Kei is a soft-throwing lefty and Tanaka can be a power pitcher, he can do both actually. I didn't know Kei off the field before I played with him. i know Tanaka and I know his competitiveness. I believe Tanaka is going to do very well, just his competitiveness alone. And his attitude--he works. I think that's a big, big thing.
SM: In the Japan Series Tanaka threw 160 pitches in Game 6 and then came out of the bullpen for the save in Game 7. That along with the tales of high pitch counts and overuse in his high school days ring bells around here nowadays. Does it do the same for you?
DR: It does. I would get on him about this stuff. I would always tell him to try to knock his workload down, but the guys in Japan they don't think that way. I think that his size and body are different than other Japanese players, so he's able to handle the load a little better. But certainly there's always some worry of them throwing too much. That's the only thing they know, especially Tanaka--he wants that ball and he wants to keep the ball, it's really hard to get the ball from him. Personally as a coach or as an organization that's what I would want from one of my guys. The past is the past. You can hopefully get him on a strength program and something more designed for pitching in the States. I think with his size and strength he can handle that load right now.
Some other nuggets...
Rasner used the word "bulldog" a few times to describe Tanaka. A major league executive told me that same word has been used in almost every evaluation of Tanaka.
Another major league executive agreed there should be concern over Tanaka's workload, but even if his MRI shows some damage it shouldn't prevent a team from investing in him. "His shoulder and his elbow could be a mess, but if the guy doesn't miss time...you have to treat the patient, not the MRI. If he had injuries or starts pushed back, then your ears would perk up."
This same executive speculated that questions about workload, adjustment to the different baseball, cultural adjustments, etc. are all "just B.S. spread by teams to lower the price." And that, by the way, doesn't seem to be working--most observers feel Tanaka will easily land a package worth $120 million or more.
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