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The importance of Masahiro Tanaka's elbow

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More than just 2015 rides on the frayed ligament of the Yankees ace.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I don't think anyone would quibble if I said Masahiro Tanaka's elbow is the most important elbow in the Yankees' spring training. Given that the 2014 Yankees missed the playoffs by only five wins, and that they got only 20 starts from their most dominant starter, it's not a particular stretch to imagine them taking a Royals-like run to the World Series had they gotten a little bit more from their young ace.

Aside from A-Rod's return, Tanaka's early workouts have been the biggest story out of camp. Is he pain-free? What does his velocity look like? How is his command? For a team that's not going to become an offensive juggernaut overnight, a healthy Tanaka atop the rotation is obviously the keystone in Operation Back in the Playoffs.

But sometimes, I forget just how central the Yankees have made Tanaka to their long term plan, too. Courtesy of Baseball Reference:

Name Age 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Alex Rodriguez 39 $22M $21M $21M FA
CC Sabathia 34 $23M $25M $5M [FA-*] FA
Mark Teixeira 35 $23.12M $23.12M FA
Masahiro Tanaka 26 $22M $22M $22M $22M $22M $23M FA
Jacoby Ellsbury 31 $21.14M $21.14M $21.14M $21.14M $21.14M $21.14M $5M [FA-*]
Brian McCann 31 $17M $17M $17M $17M $0 [FA-*] FA
Chase Headley 31 $13M $13M $13M $13M FA
Brett Gardner 31 $12.5M $13.5M $12.5M $11.5M $2M [FA-*] FA
Carlos Beltran 38 $15M $15M FA
Andrew Miller 30 $9M $9M $9M $9M FA

Look again at 2016 and 2017. None of the biggest contracts come off the books this year. In fact, for the ten players who arguably make up the Yankees' core, payroll actually increases from $177.5M to $179.5M.

If you're raging because Hal Steinbrenner drew a line in the sand on Yoan Moncada and Max Scherzer and other free agents, go ahead and bottle that. You will likely need to break out the same wine next off-season. When Tex and Beltran come off the books after the 2016 season (nearly $40M combined), then maybe we can see this team take some steps forward again.

But look again at that chart. Unless CC Sabathia's brace and stem cell injections prove to be a miracle for his knee (I'm not betting on it), then Tanaka needs to carry the Yankees' rotation. There won't be superstar reinforcements coming unless something dramatic happens. Making matters more concering is that the fact that if Tanaka's elbow gives out and he needs Tommy John surgery, then the Yankees are likely thinking about a dark 2016, too.

Maybe they can retire #21 for Paul O'Neill and #24 for Tino Martinez and re-retire #9 for Graig Nettles. That's sure to take my mind off of the team's problems.

Obviously, a strong return from Ivan Nova could take a lot of pressure off Tanaka. Michael Pineda throwing the first healthy season of his Yankees career would be a big boost. But when I looked at it in cold numbers on that Baseball-Reference page, it's really striking just how much is riding on the success of Tanaka's rehab program.