Next Man Up was the rallying cry of the 2019 Yankees, who saw contributions from folks like Gio Urhsela and Mike Tauchman, virtual nobodies at this time last year. It remains to be seen which position players will step up in 2020, but with two of the team’s three best pitchers on the shelf to begin the season, it’s up to Masahiro Tanaka to become the Yankees’ #2 pitcher.
Tanaka’s had himself an interesting career - a superstar in Japan who’s put together both absolute stud seasons in MLB - 2014 and 2016 - and years that were a little underwhelming, but always serviceable. He doesn’t need to be a Cy Young votegetter in 2020, but after the last two weeks of pitching injuries, he needs to hit his inning projections.
The new number two in the rotation is projected by Steamer to throw 180 innings, and ZiPS to throw 168, in 31 and 29 starts respectively. That, above all else, is the crucial piece for Tanaka and the Yankees - we know he can provide right around league average run suppression, being slightly above, slightly below, and virtually league average respectively.
A couple weeks ago, before Luis Severino was lost for the season, I said this:
Of course counting on Gerrit Cole for 200 innings takes stress off the rest of the pitching staff, but the team’s top five projected starters now include an injured James Paxton and suspended Domingo German, and they’re projected for 765 IP. There’s uncertainty about the health and effectiveness of the long guys in the pen - Jonathan Loaisiga has to be figured to miss time at some point, and Luis Cessa has battled inconsistency since his debut.
At the same time, there are real questions about the in-house prospect options. Clarke Schmidt has looked dynamite over the past 13 months, advancing three levels in 2019 and pitching well in his first spring training this year. He’s still thrown just 19 innings above High-A, and despite an impressive college pedigree it’s hard to imagine him having a fulltime role with the big league club this year. Deivi Garcia and Michael King are closer to the majors, but Garcia’s struggles in Scranton last year especially are worth noting when projecting any playing time.
This makes the guys actually in the rotation now more important than ever, and since Tanaka is the best non-Cole pitcher healthy, his role becomes magnified. For all the yearly concern about his arm, meanwhile, he’s proved himself a solid combination of durability and effectiveness:
That red triangle is Tanaka since coming to MLB — a lot of innings at above-average effectiveness. That effectiveness has dropped off a bit the last three years, as I said above, with Tanaka being almost exactly league average by adjusted ERA and slightly better by adjusted FIP. Despite that dropoff, he’s still top 20 in baseball in innings pitched over that span, settling nicely into the reliable veteran starter role.
Tanaka’s not the workhorse of this staff, nor is he the pitcher with the highest ceiling. But with two elite starters on the mend — one being completely unavailable for 2020 — it’s crucial he stays healthy and takes his share of the workload. We’ve seen what happens to staffs with one great pitcher and four fill-ins, and Tanaka can help prevent that.