Masahiro Tanaka is arriving in New York this weekend from Japan ahead of the Yankees holding a second spring training at Yankee Stadium which starts Wednesday.
Since signing a seven-year deal for $155 million that didn’t include a $20 million posting fee to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, this will be Tanaka’s seventh trip to a Yankees spring training. This year he will make the long trek twice, thanks to the coronavirus shutting down spring training on March 12. Shortly after that, Tanaka traveled home to Japan.
Because of COVID-19, it is difficult to predict what a 60-game season will look like. Can MLB navigate the upcoming hurdles? What will the level of play be? How may a short second spring training lead to injuries?
And here is another one nobody knows the answer to: Will Tanaka make an eighth trip from Japan to the Yankees’ spring training home in Tampa next February?
After six very good years in pinstripes, the 31-year-old right-hander can be a free agent whenever the upcoming season ends or isn’t played.
Tanaka remaining a Yankee is the smart play, but baseball’s financial landscape following this year will be scorched and that includes Hal Steinbrenner’s club.
With starters James Paxton and J.A. Happ eligible for free agency along with infielder DJ LeMahieu, will there be enough money to go around? Not likely.
Because the Yankees have affordable arms in Mike King, Domingo German, Jonathan Loaisiga, Luis Cessa, Clarke Schmidt and Deivi Garcia, they could let two of the three free-agent starters go.
Respected in the clubhouse for his professionalism, work ethic and an easy smile, this will be Tanaka’s second chance to split The Bronx. Following the 2017 season in which Tanaka went 13-12 with a 4.74 ERA in 30 starts, he could have opted out of the final three years of the contract and left $67 million on the floor, however he stayed.
That was his call. This time, the Yankees could decide Tanaka’s future and allow him to walk into an unknown free-agent market.
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Should Tanaka leave he will be missed on the mound and in the clubhouse. After inking a nine-year deal for $324 million, Gerrit Cole went to Tanaka for advice about pitching in New York.
“How can you not?” Cole told The Post’s Dan Martin during spring training. “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.”
Like a lot of teams, the Yankees have missed on some long-term deals. Jacoby Ellsbury’s seven-year, $153 million deal is on top of the list. Carl Pavano’s four-year pact for $40 million was a mistake. Ditto the five-year contract for $20 million for Kei Igawa that had an additional $26 million posting fee to the Hanshin Tigers.
On the other side is Tanaka.
In 164 games (163 starts), Tanaka is 75-43 with a 3.75 ERA as a Yankee and 5-3 with a 1.76 ERA in eight postseason starts.
Though Tanaka has never matched the 12-4 start, with a 2.51 ERA, to his Yankees career in 2014 that was interrupted by a small tear of the UCL in the right elbow that didn’t require surgery, he has been a very valuable part of the Yankees’ rotation, even with last year’s 11-9 record and 4.45 ERA in 32 games (31 starts). He also gave up 28 homers, which was his second-highest as a Yankee.
“He was tough to read last season,” an AL scout said of Tanaka, who relied more on the slider than the signature splitter. “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 [tighter] ball.”
The smart money says Tanaka stays, but how he pitches and what the market looks like will speak louder.