Hal Steinbrenner says Yankees are in hunt for Tanaka, other starters

Rakuten Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka pitches against the Rakuten Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka pitches against the Yomiuri Giants at Game 7 of baseball's Japan Series in Sendai. (Nov. 3, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- Hal Steinbrenner said Wednesday that he recently had spoken to the agent for Masahiro Tanaka. But the Yankees owner declined to handicap the race for the Japanese righthander, who is facing a Jan. 24 deadline to sign with a major-league club.

"I think a lot of teams are interested," Steinbrenner said at the owners' meetings. "This is a great young pitcher. I'm sure he'll come here and do great things with someone. But we certainly have an interest. I believe we need another starter. So we'll see what happens."

The Yankees are known to be salivating over Tanaka, whom they scouted extensively in Japan last season, when he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for Rakuten. Tanaka, 25, could command a contract of more than $100 million on top of a $20-million posting fee.

Tanaka reportedly met with several teams and received a physical during a visit to Los Angeles last week. Steinbrenner declined to even say if any Yankees officials had met with Tanaka or his agent, Casey Close. An assistant for Close, who also represents Derek Jeter, said in an email there would be no comment on Tanaka.

"I can only tell you we're in the market for another starting pitcher," Steinbrenner said, "and he's certainly going to be one were looking at."

After the free-agent signings of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, Steinbrenner said he's pleased with the Yankees' lineup even with holes at third base and second base and uncertainty at shortstop as Jeter attempts to return from an injury-wrecked season at age 40.

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But Steinbrenner called the pitching staff "a concern."

If the Yankees strike out on Tanaka, there are still at least four veteran starters on the free-agent market: Bronson Arroyo, Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez. Though the Yankees are not thought to love any of them at a high price, Steinbrenner would not rule out any of them as a backup plan.

"We're looking at everybody right now," he said. "And we're talking to people. There are some really quality pitchers still out there. Again, I think that's an area we need improvement."

Steinbrenner said the Yankees would not be hamstrung by their goal to keep the payroll under the $189-million luxury-tax threshold if they didn't think they had a good enough club.

"If we're not where we need to be, we're going to keep going," he said.

Later, he joked, "Haven't we done enough?" But it's clear he doesn't think so when it comes to pitching.

Steinbrenner also touched on other topics in a nearly 17-minute interview with a small group of reporters.

He said the Yankees were considering retiring new Hall of Famer Joe Torre's uniform No. 6 and others from the recent glory years. But he also said it was possible they won't retire any numbers this season. "It's not something we do lightly," he said.

"Nobody's talked to me about it," Torre said. "If it happens, it's going to be wonderful."

Steinbrenner said Jeter has had "no setbacks" and is on target for spring training.

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With Steven Marcus

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