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Tanaka Signing With Yankees Makes Orioles' Job More Difficult

January 22, 2014

For Orioles fans, the hits just keep on coming.

As the Birds have failed to make any meaningful, high-profile player acquisitions this offseason, their longtime division rival in New York continues to shell out money for big-name upgrades.

The Yankees landed another prize Jan. 22, reportedly agreeing to a lucrative contract with Japanese right-handed pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, one of the most sought-after starting pitchers on the market. According to reports, the Yankees gave Tanaka, 25, a seven-year, $155 million deal, one of the largest contracts ever awarded to a free-agent pitcher.

Tanaka becomes the latest addition during the Yankees' offseason spending spree, which has also included signings of outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran and catcher Brian McCann to multi-year contracts. (They also inked longtime Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, which wasn't a major signing, but further irked many O's fans.)

The Yankees, after a quiet offseason last year, when they conserved their money, this winter seem to be back to their free-spending, budget-breaking ways of the recent past. And that's bad news for the Orioles.

For years, the Yankees have been the rich, spendthrift behemoth of the American League East (along with the Red Sox). Orioles fans likely haven't forgotten how the Yanks trounced the Birds, year after year, during the bleak 14-year stretch of losing seasons from 1998-2011. The Orioles-Yankees rivalry became more like a rivalry between a tractor-trailer and a toy scooter -- decidedly one-sided.

During the last two years, it looked as if the momentum was shifting. During the Birds' breakout 2012 season, they gave the Yankees all they could handle. The O's wrestled with the Yankees all season for control of the AL East, going into the final series with a chance to win the division before New York ultimately edged in front. And the two teams engaged in an epic struggle during the AL Division Series, taking the series a full five games, with four of them decided by two runs or fewer (including two extra-inning games).

In 2013, both teams declined a bit, but finished dead even in the standings with identical 85-77 records. Looking at the team's rosters in 2013, the O's seemed to be a team on the rise and the Yankees on the decline. 

The Birds have a strong nucleus of young, talented players -- including first baseman Chris Davis, third baseman Manny Machado and center fielder Adam Jones -- and money to spend on reinforcements (or so people thought). Meanwhile, the Yankees were saddled with an aging, injury-riddled roster, with questions about their payroll flexibility and the Alex Rodriguez distraction hanging over their heads. The time was right, it seemed, for the Orioles to jump ahead of their longtime tormentors.

Well, hold that thought.

The Yankees have apparently decided what to do with their budget: pretend they don't have one. And MLB's season-long suspension of Rodriguez, which freed up nearly $20 million for the Yankees for 2014, didn't hurt matters, either. The combined total of the Yankees' contracts for Tanaka, Ellsbury, Beltran and McCann this winter is about $438 million.

The Orioles certainly don't have the financial freedom that the Yankees do, but even still, the Birds haven't done themselves any favors this offseason with their refusal to spend on even mid-market free agents. The Yankees' aggressive approach and the Orioles' inexplicable conservativeness make the payroll disparity between the two teams even more extreme.

Granted, there's no guarantee that the Yankees will be a better team than the Orioles in 2014, even with their massive spending. The Yanks still have a noticeably old team; all nine of their projected regular position players will be age 30 or older when the season begins. That includes a couple of players -- shortstop Derek Jeter and first baseman Mark Teixeira -- who are coming off significant injuries. 

Their bullpen has lost future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera to retirement, and their rotation has some question marks. Even Tanaka, though a talented and highly touted pitcher in the Japanese League, is no guarantee to be a smash; the conversion of pitchers from Japan to MLB isn't always a smooth one (just ask Daisuke Matsuzaka).

Still, the Yankees have compiled a formidable team on paper, while the Orioles have essentially snoozed through the offseason. If the Birds aren't careful, the Yanks could resume their position as the Orioles' frequent bully.

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