clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Should the Yankees sign Masahiro Tanaka to an extension?

The Yankees should consider every avenue they have for improving future rotations, including extensions for current pitchers.

Previews - New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Last week, I advocated for the Yankees to sign James Paxton to an extension. The argument for signing Paxton long-term is fairly simple. Paxton may not be particularly young, or have a spotless injury record, but he’s still productive, talented, and one of the best pitchers the Yankees could realistically get their hands on for future rotations.

He’s not the only player they could try to lock down, however. The Yankees have another soon-to-be free agent in the form of Mashairo Tanaka. The right-hander surprised us all when he declined to opt out of his contract with the Yankees after the 2017 season. Now, barring an extension, Tanaka will finally become a free agent at the conclusion of the seven-year deal he signed with New York ahead of 2014.

In some ways, the argument for signing Tanaka to an extension is not as strong as for Paxton. Tanaka has been less effective in recent seasons than Paxton, and has shown a few more signs of physical decline. Even so, many of the reasons the Yankees should consider re-signing Paxton also hold for Tanaka.

Namely, Tanaka is still good and reasonably dependable, and the Yankees don’t have many better options. Should they let both Tanaka and Paxton leave via free agency after 2020, the rotation could be left in disarray behind the starry duo of Gerrit Cole and Luis Severino at the top. Barring multiple leaps forward from the likes of Jordan Montgomery, Deivi Garcia, Jonathan Loaisiga, etc., the Yankees should strongly consider retaining Tanaka.

Much like Paxton, there isn’t a ton of recent precedent for quality starters signing extensions exactly one season prior to free agency. Rick Porcello’s four-year, $82 million pact with the Red Sox, signed before 2015 to cover the 2016 thru 2019 seasons might be our best analog.

Porcello was much younger that Tanaka at the time of that extension, but the two produced similar shapes of performance ahead of free agency. Porcello maintained average run-prevention numbers in the two seasons before signing while showcasing excellent control and middling strikeout figures. To wit, Tanaka has a 105 ERA+ since 2018, but has kept walks down in that time, while recording an 8.2 K/9 that ranks about league average.

Perhaps Tanaka could earn about a similar amount to Porcello, adjusted for salary increases in the time since Porcello signed his deal, across a three-year term, given Tanaka is 31, and Porcello signed at 25. That would leave Tanaka with a three-year extension worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 million.

Based on how free agency has played out this winter, that feels like a reasonable, if slightly high, estimate for what Tanaka could earn. Dallas Keuchel’s three-year, $55-million deal with the White Sox and Hyun-jin Ryu’s four-year, $80-million contract with the Blue Jays seem to me like fair representatives of the band of contracts Tanaka could sign right now. He fits the profile a sub-superstar starting pitcher with multiple years of quality production likely still ahead of him, much like Ryu, Keuchel, and Madison Bumgarner.

Of course, the question remains of whether the Yankees would want to tie themselves to Tanaka for future years before he even hits free agency. The answer might depend on a couple key factors: how Tanaka deals with an ever-changing ball, and how Tanaka performs as he continues to decline physically.

The prospect of the rabbit ball actually could entail some level of upside for Tanaka. The juiced ball has arguably impacted him as much as any pitcher in baseball, as the lowered seams of the ball likely have affected the way he uses his trademark splitter, and because he’s always had a home-run problem in the first place. Likewise, he’s allowed 1.5 home runs per nine innings over the past three seasons.

The last time we saw Tanaka pitch in a more reasonable home-run environment was 2016. Tanaka was only 27 at the time, but he was excellent that year, turning in 31 starts with a 141 ERA+ and earning down-ballot Cy Young votes. There’s no guarantee of what the ball will do in the future, but its’ hard to envision it flying even farther. If MLB at all manages to reign in its own equipment, Tanaka could stand to benefit, and subsequently provide upside on a longer-term commitment.

Just as tricky to determine is Tanaka’s rate of decline. Tanaka has seen his velocity gradually fall since he debuted in the states in 2014. Whereas he was able to coax quality results out of his hard pitches four-plus years ago, Tanaka now uses some pretty clear old-player tactics, pitching backwards, relying on his junk pitches, and using command and deception to get batters out.

One could argue that since Tanaka remains effective even with diminished velocity, he’s a good candidate to age well. One could just as easily argue that the fact he’s already lost plenty of velocity leaves him in danger of losing even more as he progresses through his 30s. Tanaka can still operate at 90-91 mph, but could he get outs if he declined further to 88-89?

In all, I don’t think an extension for Tanaka is a slam dunk, but it’s still something the Yankees must look into. The fact remains that they have limited top-level starting options post-2020. Tanaka and Paxton offer obvious routes to putting together elite future rotations. Tanaka’s next few years are a bit of a mystery, but the Yankees should make an effort to keep their longest-tenured pitcher, and their recent postseason ace, in pinstripes a while longer.