2016 Statistics: 199.2 IP, 3.07 ERA, 7.44 K/9, 1.62 BB/9, 4.6 fWAR
2017 Roster Status: Under contract through 2020 but can opt out after 2017
Masahiro Tanaka was everything the Yankees needed him to be at the front of their rotation in 2016. While nearly every starter behind him went through periods of ineffectiveness, the only blemish on Tanaka’s season was a strained flexor mass in his pitching arm at the end of the season that cost him some time.
The high level of performance kept Tanaka’s name in the conversation for Cy Young voting, even though he was never really expected to win it. Though it feels like some people are still waiting around for Tanaka to eventually need Tommy John surgery, he has just gotten better and done everything he can to squash those fears.
It does look as though Tanaka may not be the overly dominant force he was before his UCL was partially torn, and that’s okay. The Yankees still have an ace in every sense of the word to lead their rotation who can be depended on for quality starts against any opponent. The roughest stretch of Tanaka’s season came in June when he allowed 18 runs in 39.1 innings. He followed that up by only allowing eight runs in July.
The undeniable elephant in the room with Tanaka is his ability to opt out after next season. If he makes it through 2017 healthy, there is pretty much no reason to expect that he wouldn’t exercise that right. CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, and Nathan Eovaldi will all be free agents. Tanaka could return if the Yankees out-bid everyone, but who knows if that is on their agenda.
Tanka’s ability to opt out may not be a big deal in another season where replacements could be found on the free agent market. Unfortunately for the Yankees, the market is bare. Tanaka is going to be a very attractive option to teams in search of a top of the rotation starter, and that is only going to drive his cost up even more. In a time when Hal Steinbrenner seems to desperately want to prove he can win on a budget, Tanaka may just be too expensive for him.
The future of the Yankees’ rotation beyond 2017 is definitely up in the air. Hopefully Luis Severino can prove that he can pitch as well as a starter as he did in his time out of the bullpen. Hopefully some homegrown players like James Kaprielian and Jordan Montgomery force their way into the coversation too. Still, it feels like everyone may have to prepare for the fact that 2017 could be Tanaka’s last one in pinstripes. That’s pretty sad, because he’s been pretty great to watch.