Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka has been sent back to New York to have an MRI done on his right elbow, and will be placed on the DL with what they are calling “inflammation.” Of course, until the MRI is done it's all speculation. But this could range anywhere from “inflammation, needs rest” to “torn UCL, Tommy John surgery, death for us all.”
*Update: The Yankees have revealed that Tanaka has a slightly torn UCL, and Tommy John Surgery is possible.
You may remember Tanaka from such popular culture as the entire MLB off-season and the denied 6 year, $120 million contract from the Cubs. Many yelled and screamed about the Cubs missing on Tanaka at the time, but did they dodge a bullet? Of course, it's convenient to break this out now, when he's hurt. But there is more here.
Tanaka has been fantastic since coming over from Japan, putting up a 2.51 ERA, 3.05 FIP, and striking out 135 batters in 129.1 innings. However, while most fawned over Tanaka, a minority scratched their heads. Is he really this good? Do pitchers usually have their peripherals get better when moving over from Japan?
Last season in Japan, Tanaka put up a sparkling 1.27 ERA with 7.8 K/9. This season, for comparison, he has 9.4 K/9. That's kind of perplexing; guys like Matt Murton (I remember him!) are thriving in what is essentially AAAA in Japan, but Tanaka only could only K 7.8 per 9 innings. Yet, in the Major Leagues, his K rate rises by 1.6 batters per 9?
Of course, we can see things change a bit in his last four starts prior to hitting the DL with his elbow issues. He came back down to earth:
29.2 IP, 32 H, 22 K, 3 BB, 4.25 ERA
His K rate dropped to 6.7, but he continued to throw 68% of his pitches for strikes, just as he had all season. Is it likely that having more video on Tanaka has allowed teams to figure him out a bit? Possibly. It's true that his last four starts were all against teams that were seeing him for the second time.
But even if teams have figured him out a bit, the guy is pretty talented. It's entirely possible that he will adjust too. Most scouts and experts that had seen Tanaka prior to the season believed he had the ceiling of a number 2 starter. Maybe that's what he is after all.
And what about that fat contract? The Yankees gave Tanaka a deal that reeked of desperation. They outbid the Cubs by $35 million and gave him an opt-out clause as well; he has the ability to either opt out after 4 years or opt in to the rest of his contract.
So if Tanaka pitches well, he gets $88 million for 4 years and he can leave and go elsewhere at the end. If he gets a serious injury or he's not as good as the Yankees had hoped, Tanaka opts in and ends up with 7 years, $155 million. Just imagine what the Cubs would've had to pay him to pry him away from the Yanks.
Now, back to the injury. Elbow injuries have been all the rage in baseball these days, and are a huge part of why giving pitchers big contracts is such a risk. That said, I still won't tell you that I think Tanaka shouldn't have been given a big contract, or that others after him shouldn't get one.
I've gone on record as saying that the Cubs need to spend on pitching this off-season. They have the money available, there are some pitchers on the market, and it makes sense for their roster. But the point is, if they get outbid and someone overpays Justin Masterson or James Shields, we should hesitate before getting worked up over it.
There's a good chance the Cubs will have dodged another bullet.
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