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The return of Masahiro Tanaka might be vital to the Yankees

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The Yankees are virtual locks to make the playoffs, but if they want to make noise in October, Masahiro Tanaka’s return to form may be crucial.

MLB: New York Yankees at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees’ rotation has been in flux recently. Jordan Montgomery is on the shelf for the season, youngsters Domingo German and Jonathan Loaisiga have alternately impressed and frustrated, and Sonny Gray is in full meltdown mode. The pressure on general manager Brian Cashman to make a deal to reinforce the pitching staff is mounting.

The problem isn’t that the Yankees don’t have pieces to deal. The problem lies in finding an arm worth dealing for. There are interesting names on the trade market, but not many with elite talent, outside of the arms currently located in Queens.

Yet the most recent trade rumors indicate that the Mets are not considering moving their twin aces, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. With three weeks remaining until the trade deadline, there’s still time for things to change, but the Mets have generally sounded extremely hesitant to blow things up and deal the most valuable pitchers on their staff.

That leaves a litany of useful, mid-rotation pieces on the market, but likely no front-line arms. The Yankees have been linked to JA Happ, who has been an effective lefty for the Blue Jays. Tyson Ross could perhaps make for a good rental. Michael Fulmer is fine and comes with lots of team control.

Unless something unexpected comes up, though, something along the lines of the Mets surprisingly changing course, or the Rays putting Chris Archer on the table, there just aren’t any potential aces out there. This is a problem for the Yankees. They have championship aspirations, and the rest of the American League clubs with similar hopes already possess something close to super rotations.

The Indians have 2017 Cy Young winner Corey Kluber headlining a rotation that also features Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, and Trevor Bauer. The Astros can line up Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and Lance McCullers in a terrifying procession of flamethrowers. Even the Red Sox have Cy Young pedigree in Chris Sale, David Price, and Rick Porcello.

The Yankees can currently throw Luis Severino at the front of a playoff rotation, but after Game 1 of a potential series, the Yankees would probably be outmatched by any of those teams in terms of starting pitching. CC Sabathia has been strong, but beyond him, the Yankees don’t have anything resembling even dependability behind their ace. That, however, is where Masahiro Tanaka could come in.

Tanaka has been on the shelf for a month since injuring both his hamstrings running the bases in interleague play. He just made a rehab start and is slated to start Tuesday against the Orioles. With a dearth of top-shelf pitching options on the trade market, the Yankees’ only shot at putting together an elite rotation down the stretch and in October may lie with Tanaka.

He has had a frustrating season. Tanaka’s strikeout (9.1 K/9) and walk (2.3 BB/9) are great, as they always are, but his HR/FB% sits at 21.3%, a garish figure, and almost identical to the one he posted in 2017. That’s inflated his ERA to 4.58, and his injuries of course have limited him to just 13 starts.

Tanaka doesn’t quite look the part of second ace behind Severino right now, but he might just be the Yankees’ best hope. He suffered through similar issues last season, hemorrhaging home runs and posting an ugly ERA, before finishing strong and turning in an excellent postseason. That’s probably what the Yankees need from him this time around.

Before the All Star-Break last year, Tanaka posted a 5.47 ERA and allowed opposing hitters a .354 wOBA. After, he posted a 3.77 ERA and .280 wOBA allowed. He struck out more batters in the second half, walked fewer, generated more groundballs, and allowed fewer homers. He was dynamite in the playoffs, with a 0.90 ERA in three starts. The Yankees need that Tanaka when he returns.

Peer deeper at his numbers this year, and there’s some reason to believe he can do it. His aforementioned strikeout and walk numbers are as good as ever. Despite a poor ERA, he’s only allowed a .312 wOBA to opponents, a better-than-average mark. Tanaka is closer to pitching like he did at the end of last year than his ERA would indicate. Consider too that his career wOBA allowed is 14 points lower in the second half than in the first, and there’s hope that another brilliant finish could be in the offing for Tanaka.

Unless Gray suddenly pulls things together, Cashman can weasel deGrom out of the Mets, or someone like German surges out of nowhere, Tanaka is probably the Yankees’ best chance at a true running mate for Severino. The Yankees are a safe bet to make the playoffs no matter what happens, but to match up with the league’s other elite teams, they will likely need more elite pitching. Tanaka was able to do it last year, and the Yankees just might need him to do it again.