Masahiro Tanaka’s Yankees future is murky even after giving them everything

Part 22 in a series analyzing the New York Yankees

After signing the richest deal for a pitcher in MLB history, Gerrit Cole wanted to pick one teammate’s brain in particular when he got to Tampa for spring training: Masahiro Tanaka.

Cole said he always admired how Tanaka handled the pressure of coming to New York with giant expectations.

“How can you not?” Cole said this spring. “He’s been the quintessential professional here in New York for his entire stay. He dealt with a lot of challenges coming from Japan in the middle of his career to a completely different side of the world. There’s probably some perspective to be gained there.”

The two were only able to share that perspective for about four weeks before spring training was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, but before Cole, there was Tanaka.

This March, Tanaka was heading into the final season of the huge deal that brought him to the Yankees in 2014. He is eligible for free agency following this year, which means his time in The Bronx could soon be coming to an end.

When he arrived just over six years ago after a feverish bidding war ended with the Yankees landing the right-hander with a $155 million contract — plus a $20 million posting fee — no one was sure just how good Tanaka would be.

Days before Tanaka was introduced at Yankee Stadium, general manager Brian Cashman told ESPN Radio he expected Tanaka, then 25, to be a No. 3 starter.

At the press conference, Cashman added: “We could be getting more than a three. Maybe it’s a two. Maybe it’s even a one at some point.”

Masahrio Tanaka
Masahiro TanakaCharles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Tanaka, now 31, declined to opt out of the final three years of the contract in 2017 and has given the Yankees plenty over the course of his contract.

But to Cashman’s point, all these years later, has he been a three, a two or maybe even a one?

Probably all of them.

By the end of June in his first season with the Yankees, Tanaka was even more dominant than they had hoped he would be, going 11-3 with a 2.10 ERA over 16 starts and featuring a devastating splitter.

But the following month, a slight tear was discovered in Tanaka’s UCL. He avoided Tommy John surgery and since then, has continued to be as durable as any Yankees starter.

Given his production and how seamlessly Tanaka has fit in New York, a new contract to keep him in The Bronx following this season certainly seemed possible.

He struggled at times in 2019, impacted especially by the lower seams on the ball that caused home rates to soar, but Tanaka could still be dominant and he looked good this spring, as pitchers said the balls being used felt more like they had in the past than they did a year ago.

That was before COVID-19 forced the shutdown of the sport.

Pitchers heading to free agency, like Tanaka, could be hurt more by the work stoppage — especially since he isn’t coming off his best season.

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“He was tough to read last season,” one AL scout said. “He’s got a good track record even with that, so it’s not like he has to prove himself like some other guys do in similar positions, but it would be interesting to find out how much of what happened to him was because of the ball.”

The scout also noted that Tanaka relied much more on his slider during the latter part of the season and it became a more effective pitch for him than even the splitter.

And as usual, regardless of Tanaka’s issues during the regular season, he is typically excellent during the postseason. In eight career playoff games, Tanaka is 5-3 with a 1.76 ERA over 46 innings.

The Yankees were looking forward to deploying the 1-2 punch of Cole and Tanaka in October. Now, there’s no telling if that will happen.

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