Holy conflicting reports Batman. At the beginning of the day yesterday I read that if Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka opted out of his contract after the 2017 season that the New York Yankees would not pursue him only to read a complete 180 by the time I went to bed. One news publication has it that the Yankees won’t pursue and another, albeit by citing Randy Levine of all people as their source, says the Yankees haven’t made that decision and never said they wouldn’t pursue the Japanese-born right-hander. So which is it? Here are my thoughts on the matter.
Tanaka signed a huge deal worth $155 million when he came to the United States from Japan that included the opt-out clause after the 2017 season as a safety net for Tanaka. No one knew if Tanaka would like playing in New York or if he would rather play on the West Coast like many Japanese-born players do since it is closer to their homes in Japan so the Yankees gave him the opt-out clause that likely sealed the deal for his decision to come here. In Tanaka’s first season after signing the monster deal the righty suffered a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow that would normally require a season-ending and potentially career threatening Tommy John surgery. The Yankees, under the advice of many doctors and specialists including Dr. James Andrews, decided a rest and rehab program would be the best route to handle it and the team and Tanaka did just that despite varying degrees of criticism.
To date, and I am knocking on wood as I type this, Tanaka’s elbow has been fine and the diagnosis from the doctors looks to be a good one but as we all know pitchers are fragile in nature. Any pitcher at any time could suffer a torn UCL and require Tommy John surgery without any signs or warnings, see the very durable Bronson Arroyo as a prime example of this, so it makes sense that the Yankees may be weary and decide to let his “ticking time bomb” of an elbow be someone else’s problem if he opts out but I still don’t buy it.
After the season Michael Pineda is already coming off the books and so is CC Sabathia so losing Tanaka as well would leave the Yankees with exactly zero reliable starting pitchers for the 2018 season. Zero. James Kaprielian cannot be relied upon as he is already battling a second round of elbow concerns this season after missing most of last season with the same injury, Luis Severino has been inconsistent as a starter at best as has Chad Green and Luis Cessa, and as much as I love them as a fan Jordan Montgomery, Bryan Mitchell and Chance Adams have yet to prove themselves at the Major League level just yet. Granted they haven’t been given a huge shot, or no shot at all in the cases of Montgomery and Adams, but they wouldn’t give even me the warm and fuzzy feeling if all three of them started out next season in the Yankees starting rotation. I’m sorry but it’s the truth.
The free agent market looks barren at best for starting pitchers next season, especially considering that the Yankees plan on getting under the luxury tax threshold after this season, and the trade market requires prospects that the Yankees and Brian Cashman just don’t seem willing to part with at this time. It’s a bit of a Catch 22. Do you save money by using your farm system at the Major League level only to get under the cap and blow everyone out of the water for the likes of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado or do you trade those prospects for proven, and more expensive, pieces like Jose Quintana and continue to rebuild while also trying to win? Honestly I’m glad I’m not the one making those decisions because I don’t truly know what I would do.
I have been on board with trading for Quintana all winter long and I won’t back away from that for obvious reasons. He’s been great, he is still young and his contract is extremely cheap for what you would get back from the lefty. The Yankees need to do it now though because he will only get more expensive, prospects wise, as the year goes on. If they are truly worried about Tanaka opting out then they need to pounce on Plan B now, to improve the team and to show Tanaka that they are serious about moving on if he decides to opt-out and hold the opt-out over the teams head for more money.
Ultimately I think I would bring Tanaka back because not every pitcher and player is made for New York but Tanaka has shown that he is. You can’t really put a number on that in my opinion. Sure there are concerns with his elbow but using history as an indicator of the future you could conceivably say that about any and all pitchers that the Yankees throw out there on a day-to-day basis. Some pitchers have never required Tommy John surgery after partial tears of their UCL like Tanaka (Felix Hernandez and Ervin Santana) while some pitched for what seems like forever (Adam Wainwright) before the problem popped up again so who really knows? The human body is an amazing, and yet very unpredictable, thing. It truly is.