Almost exactly six years ago to the day (Jan. 22, 2014), the Yankees announced that they had signed coveted ace Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million deal. The right-handed workhorse from Japan, before ever throwing a pitch in the major leagues, had inked the second-largest free agent contract ever at the time by a pitcher, trailing only teammate CC Sabathia.
Fast forward to today, and Tanaka is getting set to begin the final season of that seven-year mega-deal. Through the years in pinstripes, Tanaka has been an All-Star, a prolific postseason performer and the center of a massive injury scare. Through it all, Tanaka has shown that his massive contract was worth every cent, and as he prepares to complete his seventh year of that contract, we should take some time to look back on what’s made the signing so worthwhile.
Tanaka showed his star potential immediately after making his big league debut in 2014, allowing just two earned runs over seven innings against the Blue Jays in his first start, while striking out eight. Thus began a stretch of 16 starts between the start of the season and the end of June where Tanaka posted a 2.10 ERA and struck out 127 batters over 115 2⁄3 innings. Every single one of those outings was a quality start, and made him an easy All-Star choice.
Then, disaster struck in the form of elbow discomfort, which was revealed to be a partially torn UCL, of course bringing up the possibility of Tommy John surgery should the platelet-rich plasma injection not take. Suddenly, Tanaka’s future, and the worth of his contract, was in question.
For years, Tanaka’s elbow was considered a major cause of concern, considered by some to be a ‘ticking time bomb.’ Well, that bomb must have an awfully long fuse, because since 2014, Tanaka has thrown at least 150 innings per season, including 182 in 2019. Tanaka came back strong in 2015 and pitched to a 3.51 ERA, then dazzled in 2016 by tossing 199 2⁄3 innings, logging a 3.07 ERA and a 3.51 FIP. His 2019 season was a grind, as he had to come up with a new grip for his splitter given the changed texture of the baseball, yet he still picked up his second All-Star selection and once again produced in the postseason.
Of course, Tanaka’s postseason resume is one of the most prolific accomplishments that justifies his contract. Without Tanaka, the Yankees are swept by Cleveland in the 2017 ALDS. Without Tanaka, the 2017 ALCS likely doesn’t go seven games. Even this season, after struggling with his signature pitch, Tanaka shined in October, especially in game one of the ALCS against Houston, where he tossed six shutout innings and allowed just one hit. When it comes to big-time performers, Tanaka is among the best in franchise history.
Tanaka, slated as the fourth starter in what will be the final year of his deal, is expected to have another solid season, as ZiPS projects 168 innings and a 4.30 FIP, which is more than acceptable for a back-end starter. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, considering Tanaka is still just 31 years old, but all of these years after a major injury scare, there still seems to be plenty of mileage left on that arm.
Tanaka’s contract has been so worthwhile, the conversation of possibly extending him should certainly take place within the front office. Whatever conversation was had before signing him in 2014, it has certainly been justified. Tanaka has been more than worth his contract, and as he pitches in the final year of that deal, he should be appreciated accordingly.