Heading into the 2014 season, there were two hurlers in the Yankees' Opening Day rotation that had not thrown a single meaningful pitch for the franchise: Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda. One promising, yet simultaneously concerning, season later, the Bombers will turn to those two to try to steer the team towards the playoffs for the first time in--gasp--two full campaigns. In many ways, 2015 comes down to the health and success of the two-headed monster known as "Tanakineda."
Before we break down just what exactly constitutes realistic expectations for "Tanakineda" in 2015, consider this stat when thinking about how truly important a strong top of the rotation is: from the time Joe Torre took over as manager until 2012, a time span in which the Yankees failed to miss the postseason just once, the average combined WAR of the top two starters on each year's team was 9.6. The last two years? Just 6.75. The difference of nearly three wins at the top of a rotation makes a incredible difference, especially in the era of the second wild card. (Side note: would you have guessed that the highest WAR from a Yankee starter in that period belong to Andy Pettitte in 1997 with 8.4?).
"Tanakineda" led the Yankees' rotation in 2014 with a combined 5.8 WAR. That is troublesome if you're a Yankee fan, as that puts the duo's performance just slightly ahead of Jon Lieber/Kevin Brown's 5.6 in 2004. Clearly, Tanakineda would've posted a higher figure had they registered more than 33 combined starts, but that's the point--they didn't, and there is certainly evidence that 2015 could bring more of the same. Every single pitch Tanaka throws this year could be the last one before surgery, and Pineda's track record of having a helluva time staying on the mound has been well documented.
However, in those 33 starts the two right-handers made a year ago, it was evident that extreme potential is there. Like, "Best 1-2 Punch In the Division And Maybe One Of The Best In The League" potential. In the first month of the season, the only extended stretch of the season in which it was at 100%, Tanakaineda pitched to a 2.11 ERA in 55.1 IP and a .957 WHIP. Common sense tells you it would be impractical to project two starters to pitch to that level over an entire season, and those with their respective heads on straight don't expect that insane level of production from the duo in '15. With that said, an ERA bump of 1.30 and a WHIP increase of .2 would still leave Tanakineda with impressive numbers this coming year.
New York enters 2015 with a serious number of rotation question marks for the third consecutive spring. Does C.C. Sabathia have anything left in the tank? Which Nathan Eovaldi did the Yankees acquire: the one who showed real promise in '13 or the one who led the N.L. in hits allowed last season? How many wins can the team realistically pencil in for Chris Capuano/Ivan Nova? A strong and, arguably more importantly, physically healthy year from Tanakineda would go a long way in masking other glaring problems in the rotation.
The best-case for Tanaka would be a full year of what we saw before his UCL tear: a dominant starter who is one of the best hurlers in the American League, if not the entire sport. That version of Tanaka was the AL East's best starting pitcher, and that sort of production would help bridge the gap between the Yankees and the top of the division more so than any other player on the roster. The ace of the Yankees' rotation (and yes, he is, unquestionably, the ace) has the potential to be a 5.0+ WAR candidate based off what we have seen of him 20 starts into his career. Worst-case? Well, remember what I said about every pitch being potentially the last one before surgery?
The award for "Short-Sample Size Player of the Year" would have gone to Pineda last year if not for Tanaka. In nine of his thirteen starts, Pineda went at least six innings and allowed two runs or fewer. The Dominican righty has been superb whenever he's been on the mound in his Major League career, but as we all know, that has not been all that frequent. Pineda's short-term success in '14 is unlikely to occur over a full season (his 206+ ERA would've qualified as the 30th best season ever with enough innings), so the regression is really the question at hand. ZiPS only projects Pineda to throw a total of 80.7 innings, and if that is the case, then the performance barely matters. If we see Pineda in a career-high amount of starts, which would be 29 or more, then anything north of a 3.5 WAR would be huge for New York ending its postseason "drought."
The potential of Tanakineda is a great representation of what makes the 2015 Yankees so intriguing. If everything goes right, it could be really fun to watch. Two 26-year olds taking the mound twice every fifth day and twirling gems? Fresh faces to lead an organization into a new era? A strong season from Tanaka would help, in part, to justify the exorbitant spending spree of last offseason, and one from Pineda would solidify the Yankees as the winner of "The Trade." If both are healthy (huge if, obviously) Pineda's performance seems to be a little more of a variable than does Tanaka's, but what we've seen from Pineda would indicate he is quite capable of being consistently lights-out.
This year's version of the Yankees have as wide a range of individual player outcomes as any team in the past two decades. Tanaka and Pineda head that list, with possibilities ranging from "All-Star" to "league-average pitcher" to "guy the camera zooms in on when talking the broadcasters are discussing an injury-plagued roster." Given that the rest of the roster figures to be all over the place, the more consistent Tanakineda is, the closer the Yankees will be to the top of a wide-open AL East.