The last few MLB offseasons have been short on buzz and juicy rumors, but it has still been strange to hear relative silence when it comes to interest in Masahiro Tanaka on the open market. After all, this is a proven mid-rotation starter with a solid postseason track record and a reputation as a well-liked teammate. Basically, he’s what every team needs!
Instead, we haven’t heard a single report about any team being seriously interested in Tanaka. The Yankees keep saying that they would like to re-sign him, but only if the team’s “budget” allows. For all the talk that DJ LeMahieu is the team’s top priority, the negotiations sure are moving at a snail’s pace. If the Yankees are going to drag out their discussions with LeMahieu while refusing to touch any of their other money until a decision is reached, it effectively puts the rest of the team’s offseason operations at a halt.
The line from Yankees ownership seems to be that the team only has enough money for LeMahieu or Tanaka. Not only is this untrue for a team that just carried more than $240 million in payroll last year, but it threatens to make the team worse when it should be getting better. Unless the Yankees open their books, they’ll have a hard time convincing me that they can’t afford LeMahieu and Tanaka.
From Tanaka’s side of things, he’s actually doing the Yankees a favor. This is a valuable player on the open market – not the game-changer he was in 2014, but an above-average starting pitcher. Several teams, including rivals like the Red Sox, Rays, Mets, Blue Jays and Dodgers, could all use Tanaka.
Instead, it’s been reported that Tanaka might only consider playing for the Yankees, and if they can’t come to an agreement, he would return to playing baseball in Japan. Now, Tanaka tweeted out a statement saying that he’s not limiting his options for next year, but even if it’s not truly “Yankees or bust,” it’s definitely clear that at the very least, he prefers to stay in New York. He doesn’t have to play the Yankees’ waiting game, yet he’s doing it anyway.
The Yankees have seen this before from other popular players, and they’ve callously let them all go. Johnny Damon offered to take a pay cut after the 2009 season, but the Yankees still moved on. That same year, World Series MVP Hideki Matsui was unceremoniously replaced with the injury-prone Nick Johnson. More recently, Didi Gregorius was a smash hit in pinstripes, but they were so focused on Gerrit Cole that they never made him an offer. This time, Tanaka is willing to wait around for the Yankees instead of moving on. That’s a gentleman’s move if there ever was one, but there still hasn’t been any indication of gratitude on the Yankees’ end .
This wouldn’t be such a hot topic if Tanaka wasn’t also exactly what the Yankees need right now. They have Cole atop the rotation, and Deivi García and Jordan Montgomery are depth options, but they really need a mid-rotation starter who can start the second game of a playoff series. Better the commodity you know than the one you don’t – Tanaka has been generally reliable for the Yankees, while the same cannot be said of Brian Cashman’s attempts at acquiring similar players, like Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, J.A. Happ, James Paxton, and most infamously, Sonny Gray. By letting Tanaka go, the Yankees would only be trying to find the next Tanaka, and Cashman’s track record on those types of guys hasn’t been inspiring in recent years.
If Tanaka wants to go to Japan, or wants to go to another MLB team, then so be it. He’s a free agent and can make his choice. However, all indications have been that he’d prefer to stay with the Yankees, who have a need for him and have enjoyed a productive relationship. It really doesn’t make sense for the team to give him the cold shoulder while dealing with LeMahieu because the longer that goes on, it becomes more likely that Tanaka’s patience will run out and he’ll leave.
If the Yankees had another viable option to replace his innings, then maybe that’d be OK. However, with the rotation as dicey as it is right now, the Yankees might not want to let a tailor-made option like Tanaka move on without a fight.