I recently wrote an article in which I opined that the Yankees should sign Masahiro Tanaka to a contract extension now, rather than waiting until he exercises his opt-out at the end of the season and having to bid against other clubs for his services once he hits the open market.
I must admit, I was surprised by the large number of fans who were opposed to the Yankees doing anything at all to retain Tanaka. Comments urging the front office to simply let him walk if he opts-out, or to trade him mid-season for whatever they could get were common. These statements weren't from Debbie Downers, crackpots, or trolls, but from fans who made well-stated cases supporting their reservations about Tanaka.
So I wondered, what could Tanaka do this season to alleviate these concerns and pitch up to expectations?
First and foremost, Tanaka must stay healthy. Worries about his durability, injury history, and possibility that he may need Tommy John Surgery in the future weigh heavily on the minds of fans. Tanaka has been with the Yankees for three years, and thus far he has been unable to remain injury-free for one full season.
The number one starter in a standard five-man rotation should make 33 starts per year. Tanaka made 20 starts in 2014, 24 in 2015, and 31 in 2016. The trend has moved in the right direction, but I don't think it's unrealistic for fans to expect Tanaka to finally stay healthy for an entire season and make 33 starts in 2017.
No player wants to get hurt, but some do more than others to prevent injuries. Tanaka stated that getting ready for the 2017 season with the Yankees was his priority in the offseason, and he even decided against playing for Japan in the World Baseball Classic in order to achieve this. Hopefully, his offseason approach will prove to be successful this time. We really need our ace to take the ball every five days for the whole year.
What about his performance?
Statistically, Tanaka did very well during the 2016 campaign:
- He was third in the AL with a 3.07 ERA. (Aaron Sanchez was first at an even 3.00.)
- He was fifth in the AL with a 1.08 WHIP. (Justin Verlander was first at an even 1.00.)
- He was third in the AL with a 5.4 WAR. (Verlander was first at 6.6.)
- He was fourth in the AL with a .778 Win-Loss%. (Sanchez was first at .882)
- He was fourth in the AL with a 142 ERA+. (Corey Kluber was first at 149)
- He was fourth in the AL with a 4.583 K/BB ratio. (Rick Porcello was first at 5.906)
- He finished seventh in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. I don't think it's unreasonable to ask Tanaka to win 20 games and finish among the top three in the Cy Young voting. Tanaka is the ace and expectations of your ace are supposed to be high.
The Yankees have a stated goal of winning the World Series, and they need Tanaka at his best in order to do that. The Yankees need him to pace the staff to reach the postseason, and they need him to out-pitch the other top starters in baseball once they get there.
Can he do it?
I believe he can. I believe Masahiro Tanaka has a Cy Young Award in him. I would really like to see him win it wearing the Yankee pinstripes. I would like to see him hoisting World Series trophy #28 with his Yankee teammates. Time may be running out for those two things. We'll have to wait and see what happens with the opt-out.
In the meantime, Tanaka must step up and have the best year of his career in 2017.
What do you think? What do you need to see from Tanaka this season?