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The Yankees reached the unlikeliest scenario with Masahiro Tanaka

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Masahiro Tanaka is shockingly back in the fold for the next three years

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Five Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, Masahiro Tanaka made the somewhat surprising decision to stay with the Yankees, neglecting to use the opt out clause that was included in the seven-year, $155 million contract he signed four years ago. It may seem strange to classify it as a surprise that a pitcher who just posted a 4.74 ERA decided to opt in to a three-year, $67 million commitment, but all available evidence points to this having been an unlikely outcome.

There's no knowing for sure exactly what Tanaka could have gotten had he tested the free agent market, but it's probably safe to assume he could have easily eclipsed the amount he's now due. For one, MLB Trade Rumors put Tanaka fifth in their free agent rankings and forecasted a deal that would clear $100 million.

Moreover, a cursory glance at the price of top pitching talent on the market in recent years makes it clear that Tanaka could have cleaned up this winter if he went for it. Tanaka would have entered free agency as a 29-year-old with a career 118 ERA+. Two offseasons ago, Jordan Zimmermann entered free agency at 30, with the same career ERA+, and earned $110 million. That winter, Wei Yin Chen secured $80 million with far worse run prevention and peripheral figures than Tanaka. Literally Ian Kennedy got $70 million.

Tanaka is better and younger than all those pitchers were, and the price of a win on the market has only increased in the meantime. If Tanaka either wanted to secure a deal with a higher AAV than the $22 million he's currently due, or to add additional years on the back, there surely would have been teams willing to do so.

Which is what makes his choice to stay all the more remarkable. In fact, Tanaka's opt out decision may mark the first time in recent memory that a player's opt out passed and his team was happy with the outcome.

Player opt outs are inherently player-friendly. There are essentially no scenarios in which an opt out can pass and leave the team feeling pleased; either the player recognizes he is worth more than he is due and he opts out, or he sees that he won't receive more on the open market than he's already signed for and stays on with his unenviable contract.

The past few seasons have seen countless players either exercise their opt outs and leave their former teams wanting for a quality player, or neglect to exercise the option and saddle their teams with a bad contract. This year, Kennedy didn't exercise his opt out, leaving the Royals with a $49 million commitment to a pitcher that was just replacement level. After 2015, Zack Greinke opted out his deal with the Dodgers, leaving Los Angeles without their second ace after he had just posted a 222 ERA+, and then he signed a $200 million deal with the Diamondbacks.

Looking ahead, the Cubs are very likely to be displeased with Jason Heyward’s opt out decision, as the 28-year-old is likely to opt in to $105 million over the next five years after running a 76 OPS+ in two seasons in Chicago. Even Giancarlo Stanton’s opt out, looming in three seasons, will probably leave a team with a sour taste in their mouth. Either Stanton continues to be a superstar for the next few seasons and walks out the door, or he exhibits signs of decline and opts in to a $200+ million deal that could look more onerous by the day.

The player-friendly nature of opt outs simply leaves the signing team with the worst-case scenario almost no matter what. That Tanaka would become the player that actually left his team pleased with the outcome was incredibly unlikely.

Just think back a few years ago, when Tanaka decided against having his partially-torn UCL surgically repaired, instead resting and rehabbing the ailment. Did it seem like there was any chance, back then, that Tanaka’s opt out could pass and leave the Yankees in an enviable position? It seemed, at that moment, that Tanaka would successfully heal and leave, and only stay if complications with his elbow re-emerged.

Instead, the Yankees have somehow enjoyed the best of all worlds. Tanaka has been their best starter over the past three years, has not seen his elbow bark since 2014, and he now projects to be a quality front-line starter in the prime of his career for the next three years at a reasonable price.

That’s not to say that things couldn’t possibly go south. Tanaka did struggle mightily over the first couple months of 2017, and there’s no guarantee that his elbow issues will never pop up again. Yet from where we stand right now, there’s no question that the Yankees are thrilled with the prospect of penciling in Tanaka as their no. 2 starter behind Luis Severino for years to come.

This required an unlikely confluence of events, ranging from the specter of Tanaka’s UCL, the uncertainty introduced by his poor start to 2017, and, probably most importantly, his desire to stay in the city and with the team that he loves. Now, though, it doesn’t matter how impossible it may have seemed a few years ago that Tanaka wouldn’t make the Yankees regret giving him an opt out. What matters is how he is positioned to keep helping the Yankees in their search for another championship.