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.

José Ramirez’s 17-pitch at-bat kickstarts Indians’ five-run comeback in ninth inning

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With his team trailing 8-3 to begin the bottom of the ninth inning of Sunday’s game against the Astros, Indians third baseman José Ramirez eventually won a 17-pitch at-bat against closer Ken Giles, ripping a double off of the wall in right field. The Indians would go on to score five runs on seven hits to tie the game against Giles and Hector Rondon. Ramirez almost won the game in his second at-bat of the ninth inning, but first basebamn Yuli Gurriel made a terrific diving catch on a line drive otherwise headed for the right field corner.

Giants first baseman Brandon Belt set a new modern record for the longest at-bat last month, seeing 21 pitches against the Angels’ Jaime Barria. The Astros’ Ricky Gutierrez sfaw 20 pitches from the Indians’ Bartolo Colon on June 26, 1998, which was the previous record. Kevin Bass saw 19 pitches from the Phillies’ Steve Bedrosian in 1988. There have also been five 18-pitch at-bats from Brian Downing, Bip Roberts, Alex Cora, Adam Kennedy, and Marcus Semien.

Sunday’s game wound up going 14 innings. The Astros pulled ahead 9-8 in the top of the 13th on a solo home run from Evan Gattis. However, the Indians’ Yonder Alonso responded with a solo shot of his own in the bottom of the 13th to re-knot the game at 9-9. Greg Allen then lifted a walk-off solo homer in the bottom of the 14th to give the Indians a 10-9 win.

After Sunday’s effort, Ramirez is batting .292/.389/.605 with 15 home runs, 37 RBI, 34 runs scored, and seven stolen bases. According to FanGraphs, his 3.5 Wins Above Replacement ranks third across baseball behind Mike Trout (4.4) and Mookie Betts (4.1). They’re the only players at three wins or above.