HOUSTON -- Derek Jeter turned into a reporter. In January, when he got a whiff that 25-year-old Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka might sign with the New York Yankees, he sought confirmation. Since he and Tanaka share the same agent, Casey Close, Jeter knew who to contact.
Jeter, who often claims to know a lot more than he lets on, admitted he didn’t have this one first.
“I didn’t get an inside scoop,” said Jeter with a smile.
Less than two months later, Jeter, more than most, knows what Tanaka is going through. No athlete in the modern age has handled the New York spotlight better than Jeter.
This spring, Tanaka and the retiring Jeter have co-shared the marquee while the Yankees have prepared their new $155 million righty for prime time -- which, in case you missed it, begins Friday night in Toronto against the Blue Jays.
Jeter believes Tanaka will do well because, as he says, he is a “pitcher, not just a thrower.” With his go-to splitter and slider combo mixed with a menu of pitches that might be able to overcome a pedestrian fastball, Tanaka doesn’t seem like a rookie.
It is more than that, though. Tanaka has a confidence that resembles a young Jeter. Jeter wouldn’t say that, of course, but he has noticed Tanaka’s level of professionalism.
“It is just like he’s been out there for a while,” said the Yankee captain, who exhibited similar characteristics in the mid-‘90s when he arrived.
When Hideki Matsui, another pro’s pro, came to the Yankees in 2003, he and Jeter formed a special bond. And that relationship could give him a little more insight into Tanaka’s mindset. Matsui and Jeter could relate to each other, in part because of their level of stardom in their home countries and the fact their births were separated by two weeks.
Matsui told Jeter playing in the States was simpler for him away from the field because he wasn’t recognized as often. Despite the large Japanese media contingent, it made for a little less pressure outside of Yankee Stadium.
“It is probably easier for him,” Jeter said of Tanaka. “I’m speculating here. He probably is not as recognized here away from the field, like he was over there. At least, not yet.”
The Yankees outlaid a total of $175 million to secure Tanaka in January. And every move Tanaka has made -- from his first bullpen to each and every syllable he utters -- has been dissected since.
The Yankees have tried to create an environment for success by tamping down expectations, beginning with general manager Brian Cashman's labeling him a No. 3-type starter for this season. The Yankees have plugged him into the fourth spot to separate him from throwing back-to-back with Hiroki Kuroda, who also throws the splitter. The schedule has worked out so that Tanaka will miss the first two Boston Red Sox series, whom the Yankees play at the end of next week.
Teammates have noticed that Tanaka doesn’t seem overwhelmed by anything. Speaking for the final time before his start, he sounded almost Jeter-esque when asked to anticipate his emotions for Friday.
“It is really hard to say,” Tanaka said, being polite but not specific. “I really have to feel it once I get up there on the mound.”
It will be Tanaka’s first trip to a major league mound, even though to the Yankees it seems as if he's been around the team forever. From the beginning of winter, he was their top target. And it came to fruition only in January.
"He has allowed spring training to be a seamless transition for him," Cashman said. "Now, we have the regular season to deal with, which is a completely different animal. He actually has made it feel like he has been a teammate to these guys for years and a member of this franchise for more than six or seven weeks."
His teammates have been impressed. And they have been watching him closely.
Whenever there is a big-time prospect new to the ranks, veterans usually pay keener attention, wanting to see what's on the horizon. Like in any profession, they notice the little things that others might not.
“I’ve been around guys who are supposed to be big-time prospects and you watch their stuff and it is ordinary,” Yankees lefty reliever Matt Thornton, 37, said. “They may or may not have some success. They don’t have the ability to mix their pitches or their out pitches. They’re ordinary. They are a cookie-cutter pitcher. Tanaka is definitely not a cookie-cutter pitcher. He has pretty special stuff.”
Just like Jeter and the fans, the rest of the Yankees were giddy in discovering the club had signed Tanaka, who was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in Japan last season. Brett Gardner received a text from a friend and then spoke with CC Sabathia the day it happened.
“He seems very professional,” Gardner said when asked what he's observed of Tanaka so far. “I know he is only 25 years old, but he seems like he belongs. He is just like a younger Hiroki.”
Sabathia added, “It seems like he has been here the whole time. It hasn’t been like a crazy transition for him. I think he has fit into the team real nice. I think he is going to be great for us.”
That is the consensus from Jeter on down in the Yankee clubhouse -- Tanaka belongs. With Jeter leaving at the end of the year and Tanaka arriving now, the face of the franchise could be transitioning from No. 2 to No. 19. And on Friday night, we'll begin to find out exactly what that means.