I’m Going to Miss Masahiro Tanaka

Yankees will miss right-hander if rotation gamble doesn't pay off

When the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993, they signed CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett, spent $423.5 million, won 103 regular-season games and won the 2009 World Series.

So when the Yankees missed the playoffs again five years later after watching Lyle Overbay and Vernon Wells fill out the heart of their order for the majority of the season and the Red Sox win the World Series, they decided to do what they had done the last time to resolve the issue. Instead of worrying about the $189 million goal, the Yankees signed Brian McCann ($85 million) and Jacoby Ellsbury ($153 million) and after losing Robinson Cano to the Mariners, they signed Carlos Beltran ($45 million). Then they went out and signed Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract despite him having never thrown a pitch in the majors.

The Yankees’ strategy of getting back into contention by monopolizing the free-agent market didn’t work the second time around. After being a .277/.350/.473 hitter for the Braves over eight-plus seasons, McCann became a .235/.313/.418 on the other side of 30 for the Yankees. The Yankees eventually paid him to play the last two years of his contract for the Astros (and help beat them with a huge double in the ALCS). Ellsbury turned out to be the worst contract in the history of the team and possibly the sport. Of a possible 1,134 regular-season games, he appeared in 520 (46 percent) over seven years. He was benched for the wild-card game in 2015 and lost his starting spot by the time the 2017 playoff run came. He never played another game for the Yankees after 2017. Beltran’s first season with the Yankees was what you would expect from a 37-year-old right fielder in his 15th season: a disaster, posting a .703 OPS. The next year he was better (.808 OPS) and then at age 39 in 2016, he was his old self (.890 OPS). The Yankees traded him to the Rangers at the 2016 deadline and the following year at 40, he celebrated an elusive championship with McCann as an Astro.

Tanaka was the only one of the bunch to live up to his contract (and then some). He was the only one to either play out his entire contract with the Yankees (McCann and Beltran) or play it out period (the Yankees released Ellsbury).

Tanaka was the perfect Yankee. Good, consistent, accountable and likable. He took each start as seriously as someone making somewhere around $700,000 per start should. He might have never had his best stuff, but he never took a start off, working to grind through the outings when he couldn’t locate his fastball or when he didn’t have a feel for his offspeed stuff. He expected to win every fifth day, and he expected perfection from himself in an imperfect game.

In his first year in the majors, Tanaka was arguably the best pitcher in the league before an elbow tear disrupted his season. The New York media with their medical degrees argued he should undergo Tommy John surgery and just get it over with as if it were the equivalent of having a cavity filled, while the world’s leading orthopedic surgeons and sports medicine doctors recommended rest and rehab. Tanaka listened to the doctors over the sloppy sportswriters and went on to return at the end of the season and pitch six more seasons for the Yankees with the elbow tear.

Post-elbow tear, Tanaka wasn’t the same pitcher. He was still really, good and reliable, he was just no longer in the same class as the game’s top names. The postseason was a different story. For as pedestrian as Tanaka might look at times over a full season worth of starts, October was where he was truly at his best.

In the 2015 wild-card game, Tanaka pitched well (5 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 3 K, 2 HR) against a young Astros team on the verge of becoming a championship team. Tanaka was never going to win that game as he was set up to lose with the offense facing their kryptonite at the time in Dallas Keuchel. The game could still be going on and the Yankees still wouldn’t have scored.

He saved the Yankees’ season in 2017 in Game 3 of the ALDS. Facing elimination at home, Tanaka shut out the 102-win Indians for seven innings (7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K). He followed that up by pitching good enough to win in Houston in Game 1 of the ALCS at the height of the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme (6 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 K). Five days later in Game 5, he shut out the Astros at Yankee Stadium the way he had the Indians a round earlier (7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 8 K).

A year later when the Yankees were embarrassed by the Red Sox in the 2018 ALDS, it wasn’t because of Tanaka. He won the only game the Yankees won in the series with a series-saving performance (at the time) in Game 2 in Boston: 5 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 4 K, 1 HR. He had swung home-field advantage in the series in the Yankees’ favor. It’s not his fault his teammates, and mainly Aaron Boone, ruined that advantage the next two games.

In the 2019 postseason, Tanaka was tasked with facing the Twins who had set the all-time record for home runs in a season (307) at homer-happy Yankee Stadium. He held the Twins homerless in his five stellar innings (5 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 K). A week later in Game 1 of the 2019 ALCS, back in Houston for a rematch, Tanaka shut out the Astros, holding them to one hit over six innings (6 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 4 K). The Astros got to him in Game 4 (5 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 HR) as his historical postseason performance finally had its first blip.

This past October, Tanaka didn’t look himself. In Game 2 of the wild-card series against the Indians, he allowed three doubles and four earned runs in the first inning in the pouring in an inning that would eventually would be paused and delayed for hurricane-like conditions. The Yankees came back to win the Game 10-9 to prevent that from being Tanaka’s last start as a Yankee. Boone’s idiotic managing push Tanaka from getting the ball in Game 2 of the ALDS to Game 3, so Boone’s could unleash his genius J.A. Happ plan. Tanaka struggled again, putting the Yankees on the brink of elimination (4 IP, 8 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 4 K, 2 HR).

I didn’t think that would be the last time Tanaka would pitch for the Yankees. Even though he was an impending free agent, there seemed to be mutual interest for both he and the Yankees to continue the relationship. The Yankees were also losing Happ and Paxton to free agency, Luis Severino wouldn’t be back until mid-2021 (at the earliest), and the Yankees’ lack of starting pitching made a Tanaka reunion appear inevitable. Yet somehow, it didn’t work out.

The Yankees chose to sign the once-dominant Corey Kluber but now a virtual unknown to a one-year deal, and they decided to trade for another unknown in Jameson Taillon. Those moves coupled with Hal Steinbrenner’s desperation to stay under the $210 million luxury-tax threshold meant the end for Tanaka.

Tanaka likely set a price for himself, and if the Yankees weren’t going to meet it, he would return home to Japan to pitch. It was either going to be th Yankees or Japan. He wasn’t going to pitch for another team in North America and he wasn’t going to pitch for less than his worth just to remain a Yankee. The allure of going home and living in Japan full time likely made it easier for him to accept the Yankees’ decision to move on.

The Yankees’ 2021 rotation is an enormous gamble with Gerrit Cole being the only reliable arm. When Severino returns (whenever that might be), he will be coming off Tommy John surgery, which was preceded by a lat issue, which was preceded by a shoulder issue. Kluber is coming back from a shoulder injury. Taillon is coming back from his second Tommy John surgery. Jordan Montgomery is 52 innings removed from Tommy John surgery. Since the start of the 2019 season, Severino has made five starts and has thrown 20 1/3 (and again, he won’t be available until midseason), Kluber has made eight starts and thrown 36 2/3 innings, Taillon has made seven starts and thrown 37 1/3 innings and Montgomery has made 12 starts and thrown 52 innings. After that, there’s Deivi Garcia and his six career starts (seven if you count whatever Game 2 of the ALDS was), and Clarke Schmidt and his one career start.

The Yankees strategy for 2021 is praying a lot of things go right for them. They’re hoping to hit on both Kluber and Taillon, hoping Severino comes back healthy from surgery and three injuries and is immediately his old self, not needing the seemingly mandatory time and innings to regain form after surgery. They’re hoping the team that set the all-time single-season record for players on the injured list in 2019 and the team that was equally as injured and unhealthy in 2020 is suddenly healthier despite being a year older.

The Yankees wouldn’t have to worry about Tanaka. Sure, any pitcher can get hurt on any pitch at any moment, but Tanaka had been a model of consistency for the Yankees. Even with his elbow injury in 2014 and missed time in 2015, he still made 44 starts in those two seasons and had made 31, 30, 27 and 31 starts from 2016 through 2019 respectively. This past season he made all 10 of his starts. Without his feel for his signature pitch, Tanaka’s ceiling might not be what Kluber or Taillon’s are when healthy, but who knows if they will be healthy. With Tanaka, the Yankees knew who would be getting the ball when his turn came up each time through the rotation, yet they chose two lottery tickets over a guaranteed paycheck.

Tanaka became a Yankee because the team missing the postseason in a season in which the Red Sox won the World Series was too much for Steinbrenner to keep his team’s payroll under the luxury-tax threshold. Apparently, 11 straight years without a World Series appearance, let alone a championship, and coming off an ALDS exit with one reliable starting pitcher in the rotation isn’t enough for Steinbrenner to change his mind again, and as a result, Tanaka is no longer a Yankee because of the luxury-tax threshold.

I’m going to miss Tanaka, and when the Yankees’ season actually begins (whenever that might be) I will miss him even more. If the Yankees’ rotation gamble doesn’t pay off, they’ll miss him as well.

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