Masahiro Tanaka will help, but the Yankees need much more than him to be a contender

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The offseason distorts things. The wintertime focus on individual player signings and the underlying optimism everyone seems to have about the prospects of their local nine often makes us forget that, in baseball, one player cannot make the difference between winning and losing. Heck, sometimes even three players don’t. Just ask Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson and thousands of disappointed Angels fans these past couple of seasons.

Which isn’t to say that Masahiro Tanaka was a bad signing for the Yankees. Anything but. The Yankees had serious issues in their rotation and Tanaka was, by far, the best pitcher available on the open market. Tanaka’s presence will dramatically improve the Bombers’ rotation even if his numbers pale compared to the video game stats he posted in Japan this past season.

But before Yankees fans clear their October calendars in favor of watching a deep playoff run, they need to remember that, despite the nearly half a billion dollars the Steinbrenners have devoted to free agents this offseason, their local nine still has a lot of holes.

Mariano Rivera is gone and, though David Robertson is one of the best relief pitchers in the game, one does not simply replace the greatest of all time. Maybe more to the point, with Robertson moving in to the closer’s role, the rest of the bullpen is thrust into flux. Lefty Matt Thornton was a nice pickup, but New York could really use another solid reliever.

The infield could be a much bigger problem. Heck, if things break bad it could be a hot mess. Mark Teixeira’s wrist, which kept him out of the entire 2013 season, is already giving him some problems, with MLB.com reporting earlier this week that he’s likely to have a late start to spring training as a result. Derek Jeter is back, but he is no safe bet to be healthy and/or effective at his advanced age. His fill-in — Brendan Ryan — is a slick fielder but worthless at the plate. And he may be covering second base anyway if Brian Roberts, imported from Baltimore, is unable to shake the durability issues he’s had for the past several years. Finally, while everyone is happy that A-Rod is gone, third base is a question mark. Kelly Johnson hasn’t played much third in his career., and he may need to cover first base if Teixeira is gimpy.

That sound you hear is Stephen Drew’s agent clearing his schedule to take meetings with Brian Cashman. Or, if Cashman is smart, it should be.

Even before the Tanaka signing, the Yankees addition of Brain McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran made them better. But there’s no escaping the fact that this was an 85-win team last year which arguably overachieved to get even that far (their Pythagorean expectation was 79 wins). To compete with the defending world champ Red Sox and the always pesky Tampa Bay Rays, the Yankees needed to improve significantly.

There is no question that the Tanaka signing is a significant upgrade to the rotation. But to the extent anyone says it “buys the Yankees a championship” or anything close to it, they’re ignoring the fact that an awful lot has to go right for this team, as currently constructed, to even be assured of the playoffs. They’re a reliever, an infielder (or two) and a couple of bounceback years from some aging veterans away from printing playoff tickets.

Sometimes all of those things break just right. They’re not the sort of things people wager a lot of money on, however.

Matt Shepard to be the Tigers new full-time play-by-play guy

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Fox Sports Detroit has named Matt Shepard their new full-time play-by-play guy for Tigers games. Shepard will work with analysts Jack Morris and Kirk Gibson, who will split time.

This is the move in response to former longtime announcers Mario Impemba and Rod Allen getting suspended and later fired following an in-booth altercation in Chicago last September. The two of them, who weren’t exactly friends, reportedly fought over a chair, with conflicting reports of how serious the fight was. An anonymous witness said Allen put Impemba in a choke hold. Allen recently gave an interview in which he denied that and said it was only some pushing and shoving. Either way, it ended their 16-year team-up for Tigers games.

Shepard has worked for Fox Sports Detroit for nearly 20 years, doing fill-in play-by-play for the Tigers — he replaced Impemba for the last few weeks of last season — and for Detroit Pistons games. Gibson has been a part time analyst for the network for the past couple of seasons, splitting time with Allen. Morris has done Tigers, Blue Jays and Twins games over the years, sometimes even splitting time between the Twins and Tigers, which is rather unusual.

Shepard is pretty good at his job. While Tigers fans liked and were familiar with Impemba, there won’t be a falloff in quality. Gibson makes some good analytical points and has a surprisingly sharp and biting sense of humor about him, but his gruff and monotone delivery is not everyone’s cup of tea. You get used to it. Morris is not my cup of tea — he tends to do a lot of the “back in my day” stuff former players often do — but I’m pretty sure he could recite the dictionary on TV in Detroit and a lot of Tigers fans would tune in. Such is life.