The Yankees have two big arms out of their starting rotation poised to hit free agency this winter in Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton. Given the team’s struggles with rotation depth during parts of this season, it would make sense to bring at least one of those two starters back on a new deal to complement Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino and Deivi Garcia.
Of course, this is the Yankees, and they could easily afford to bring back both to ensure rotation depth, but they did just commit a record-breaking contract to the rotation with Cole last offseason, so it seems highly unlikely that they would bring back both. If they decide they are only willing to commit to one of those two starters, this shortened season has made it clear that the pick should be Tanaka.
After Tanaka’s solid start against Toronto earlier this week, where he tossed seven innings and allowed three runs and no walks, his ERA for the season has dropped down to 3.27 through 44 innings of work. His 4.26 FIP is right in line with what it was last season, when he earned his second All-Star nod, and most importantly, he’s been his usual durable self, which he has been since his injury scare as a rookie in 2014.
Meanwhile, Paxton has again struggled to stay healthy, coming into the season with back issues before going down with a flexor strain after making five starts this season. Having recently been transferred to the 45-day IL, Paxton’s regular season is over, with the hope that he could be an option for the postseason. Paxton certainly has the nod over Tanaka in terms of upside, but he has struggled to show that upside due to injuries that have limited him to 171 innings of work since being brought over from Seattle prior to the 2019 season.
In terms of age, Tanaka is just five days older than Paxton — both are 31 years old and turning 32 in November. We saw Paxton’s potential with one of the biggest pitching performances of the Yankees’ season in game five of the 2019 ALCS, but that has also been a typical night at the postseason office for Tanaka, who has turned into one of the best playoff pitchers the Yankees have ever had.
But the main consideration for the Yankees should be durability. This team has been riddled with injuries since the start of last season, and being able to stay on the field matters. A lot. Severino has missed extensive time since last season, as has Paxton, while Tanaka has continued to eat up innings, helping him accumulate more WAR over the past two seasons (2.7 for Tanaka, 2.0 for Paxton).
Again, Brian Cashman should seriously consider bringing back both Tanaka and Paxton. After all, Paxton may be looking for a one-year deal to try and get a full season in before hitting the reset button on his free agency, and he has shown his brilliance in spurts for the Yanks, so a short-term deal would make sense for a team that could use rotation depth. But in the likely scenario that only one will be brought back, Tanaka should be the choice. He’s already more than earned his initial seven-year deal, and has continued to pitch well in his contract year. Tanaka should still be in pinstripes come 2021.