Saturday, April 8, 2017


Masahiro Tanaka is under unusual pressure. He’s kicking himself for his lackluster performance on Opening Day. That’s obvious. What is unusual for him, perhaps, is how the pressure is mounting from the off-the-field discussions about his contract and the infamous opt-out clause. On Friday, he made a tense statement about how the talk around the contract and the clause will not affect his pitching performance. Of course, that cannot possibly be true, but I understand why he is saying that. He wants to play honorably, do his best for the team, and I respect him for that. That doesn’t change the fact that his performance will have everything to do with whether he exercises the opt-out clause, what the Yankees will do if he does, and what his options will be. If you’re Tanaka, that’s a powerful incentive to make sure you pitch as close to Cy Young quality as humanly possible.

Photo: Getty Images
That said, Brian Cashman has a huge problem. Coming off a rebuilding year, the Yankees were hoping to have young talent starting to establish themselves and start a trend towards a competitive championship team. While that’s true of most places around the active roster, the one glaring failure is the starting rotation. The kids didn’t impress, though some showed promise for What’s worse, the pitchers that did even reasonably well may all be gone next year.  I’m talking about the guys in the first 3 spots – Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda. The development plan works when you have pitchers ready to take their place, and that means having some of their younger players ready to pitch at the major league level and occupying the 4 and 5 slots. You cannot say enough about the magnitude of the failure of that plan. They settled for Luis Severino in the 4 slot and basically deferred the decision on the 5 spot because April has a lesser need for a 5th starter. Severino, who I love and hope gets back to 2015 form, didn’t impress anybody either in Spring Training or in his first start, and that is hugely disappointing.

Tanaka finished last year with the 3rd best ERA in the AL (3.07), 5th best WHIP (1.077), 3rd best BB/9 (1.6), and 4th best Team W/L% (23-8, .742). There’s a reason why he’s the ace and, more importantly, why he is the main guy around whom you want to build the future rotation. CC Sabathia is in the last year of his contract, and it may be his last season as a Yankee, maybe the last of his career. Michael Pineda is year to year, and while he has flashes of brilliance, he always reverts to the guy we saw last Wednesday. Tank’s the man, and if he pitches as brilliantly as we know he can, we’ll probably lose him. If he has that kind of season, why wouldn’t he exercise the clause? Monster free agent deals for premiere players is the new normal in baseball. The Yankees, likely still trying to wash away the stink of the 2007 A-Rod deal, have said they will not offer Tanaka a “costly, long-term extension” (as reported by the Daily News here). Tanaka’s full no-trade clause would handcuff the Yankees in terms of any trades to get some value back for him, assuming they thought he wouldn’t return for 2018.

(Kim Klement/USA Today Sports)
This has to be at the top of Brian Cashman’s agenda for 2017. We all know that hitting is still an issue, that the young players still have to mature and the Yankees have to be careful with them, and that the Yankees have a laundry list of issues to address with the team. Many of those issues are going to get addressed through trades – there’s no way around that. July should be a busy month for Mr. Cashman. He still has some chips he can move. But this is the primary issue. If the Yankees are going to return to a being a major contender, this is the issue to keep an eye on. Starting from scratch is a costly and time-consuming endeavor. As Joe Girardi likes to say, it’s not what you want.

--Ike Dimitriadis

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