After all that he has accomplished in pinstripes, the New York Yankees should absolutely re-sign Masahiro Tanaka after this season.
Even with the 2020 season postponed until further notice, make no mistake. General manager Brian Cashman and his team are certainly thinking about the future, particularly the pitching staff. This decision largely features Tanaka, not to mention teammate James Paxton and others.
In a nutshell, only newly-signed Gerrit Cole is certain to be in the starting rotation on Opening Day 2021. Everyone else, meanwhile, is kind of up in the air. Fully loaded as the Yankees are now, there is every possibility the 2021 team will look fully different.
Regardless of what decision Cashman winds up making, Masahiro Tanaka has to be in pinstripes next year and for years beyond. In fact, re-signing Tanaka should be one of the team’s top priorities.
A well-built reputation
When the New York Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka out of Japan to a seven-year, $155 million contract, it was expected they were getting an ace. After all, Tanaka had gone 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA in seven years with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. He was also still just 25 years old.
Sure enough, Tanaka went 13-5 with a 2.77 ERA as a rookie in 2014. The only problem was he missed two and a half months with elbow trouble. In fact, Tanaka was found to have a partially torn UCL in his elbow, often the precursor to Tommy John surgery.
Fast forward to today, and Tanaka has managed without having the procedure. In fact, he didn’t have surgery on his pitching arm until this past offseason when he had bone spurs removed. Save for random aches and pains here and there, Tanaka has been quite durable despite never pitching 200 innings in the regular season.
The postseason is an even greater example of Masahiro Tanaka and how vital a member of the pitching staff he is. He’s 5-3 with an astounding 1.76 ERA in eight playoff starts and truly reaches another level in October. Match that up with a 3.75 ERA for his career, and Tanaka’s $23 million salary for 2020 suddenly makes sense.
An uncertain future
But Tanaka’s salary, not to mention 2020 being his contract year, complicates the future. Even if he has a career year in an abbreviated 2020 season, bringing him back on a multiyear deal at over $20 million a year is highly unlikely.
Look at it this way. As of now, the only guaranteed member of the Yankees’ pitching staff in 2021 is Gerrit Cole. He signed a nine-year, $324 million deal, so some hard decisions need to be made about payroll.
Let’s start with Cole and work our way down. Jordan Montgomery has three years of arbitration left. If he looks as sharp in the regular season as he did in spring training, his spot in the rotation is safe. Furthermore, Luis Severino will return Tommy John surgery sometime next year.
This means assuming the roster stays as it is, the Yankees will have two or three spots available in next year’s rotation. Depending on how they perform in the minors this year, one or more could be filled by prospects like Mike King, Clarke Schmidt, or Deivi Garcia. Further complicating matters, however, is that Tanaka enters free agency with another teammate, James Paxton.
ESNY’s own Thomas Hall has already given his own reasons for why the Yankees shouldn’t re-sign Paxton, and I have to say I agree. Between Paxton’s age, injury issues, knack for giving up home runs, and Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch, it’s best to move on from him. Baseball’s power surge further justifies this.
That isn’t to say Masahiro Tanaka should be excused from his own home run issues. After allowing just 1.1 home run per nine innings (HR/9) in his first three seasons, that number has risen to 1.5 since 2017. Sure enough, after posting a 3.12 ERA from 2014-2016, Tanaka’s mark rose to 4.34 in the last three years.
But let’s take another look at his HR/9. Even with his season-by-season ERA yo-yo-ing in the last three years, Tanaka’s HR/9 has dropped from 1.77 to 1.44 to 1.38. Moreover, per Lindsey Adler of The Athletic Tanaka’s issues were later traced to issues with the grip of his splitter, which Tanaka has since adjusted and seen better results from such.
Now, let’s go back to James Paxton. After posting a HR/9 of 0.6 in 2017, his mark more than doubled to 1.29 the following year. It only rose to 1.37 in 2019, but the concern remains. Yet, after earning $12.5 million in a season where he was already set to miss time with back surgery, Paxton will surely want a raise.
Masahiro Tanaka, meanwhile, might take a discount.
Mind you, none of this is to say the Yankees would be making a mistake if they were to choose Paxton over Tanaka. Paxton’s red flags aside, he still finished last season on a 10-0 hot streak with a 2.50 ERA. Paxton wasn’t as effective in the playoffs, but that was later traced to tipping his pitches. He also silenced the Houston Astros in a critical win in Game 5 of the ALCS.
And even if the two are just five days apart in terms of age, Masahiro Tanaka is still the better man to keep. He has already proven he can handle New York’s big stage despite being streaky. Even with an elbow that may be a ticking time bomb, his health isn’t a concern.
But much like another Yankees playoff legend, Andy Pettitte, Tanaka is the Yankees’ version of The Man With No Name. No matter the pressure, he has ice water in his veins and can deliver the kill shot in the blink of an eye. Now, imagine that with Gerrit Cole at the top of the rotation. It’s quite a 1-2 punch.
Moreover, when he could have opted out of his contract after the 2017 season, Tanaka instead opted in for the last three years. The man wanted to stay a New York Yankee instead of looking for equal or better money elsewhere.
The long and short of it is Masahiro Tanaka completely embodies the team-first attitude the Yankees have recently embraced. The plethora of injuries that ravaged the roster never mattered because the team rallied together to win, and Tanaka’s pitching played a key role in that.
Even if he doesn’t deserve $20 million a year, a multiyear deal between $15-$17 million a year is perfectly reasonable.
Your move, Cashman.