Back on October 20th, Masahiro Tanaka underwent surgery to remove a bone spur in his right elbow. He spent the off-season rehabbing his arm and trying to prepare for the 2016 season. As of right now, all signs are good and point to Tanaka being healthy. Last week, Tanaka even threw off a mound for the first time since the surgery and came away with no ill effects. All this being said, he's still not a lock for Opening Day.
If he's healthy, Tanaka is almost assuredly going to pitch on April 4th. I say "almost" just because it hasn't officially been announced. Really though, there's no evidence saying it would, or even should, be anyone else. He was the team's Opening Day starter last year, he started the AL Wild Card game against the Astros, and he's undoubtedly the ace of the staff today. Once the regular season begins and starts to unfold, the Opening Day starter doesn't really mean much, nor does the exact order of the rotation as it will eventually get jumbled around. But still, it's considered an honor to be the Opening Day starter, and in case Tanaka suffers any setbacks during the next few weeks, it's interesting to wonder who the Yankees would to take his place.
In 2015, the Mets faced a similar "dilemma" because their ace and pitching staff leader at the time, Matt Harvey, was coming off Tommy John surgery and the team was unable (maybe unwilling) to line him up to get the Opening Day start. They chose to give Bartolo Colon the honor instead. Colon himself was probably the most deserving of the starters as he had a very successful 2014 campaign. Sure, Jacob deGrom also had a great year, but being a skilled veteran probably gave Colon the edge and so he was the choice to fill in for Harvey. With the Yankees, though, they have four options to fill in for Tanaka, each of whom has a solid case to start on Opening Day.
The first choice on the list may seem like the obvious candidate. Last year's no. 2 starter should be the one who slides in to the Opening Day role, right? It makes sense to give Pineda the honor too, even if he hasn't fulfilled his potential yet. If he can find his consistency, he could be the best pitcher in the rotation, and one of the top pitchers in the entire league. His "stuff" can be downright filthy, and who wouldn't love to see a 16 strikeout gem on the first day of the season? Though he had an extremely up-and-down year in 2015, there's almost no better way for a team to show a player that they have confidence in a bounce back season than by giving him one of the biggest non-playoff starts of the year.
I mentioned how Colon had an edge over deGrom because he was a veteran and he was effective, and that's exactly the reason CC Sabathia doesn't get the automatic nod. Sabathia was the Opening Day starter for five straight years until Tanaka took his place in 2015. By that point, CC was no longer an effective pitcher, and Tanaka has wiggled his way ip to the top of the ladder. Even if he's no longer the ace he once was, the veteran remains the leader of the pitching staff. With that leadership in mind, and considering what he went through at the end of 2015, the team can really show their support for him by letting him start on Opening Day one more time.
Last year he was the team's top prospect, this year Luis Severino has a chance to be something much more. The rookie phenom absolutely stole Yankees fans' hearts in his 11 Major League starts, going 5-3 with a 2.89 ERA in 62.1 IP. He could one day be the ace this team has been searching for, and will surely get his fair share of Opening Day starts, but it's a little early to be considering him. Or would it be? If I was in Severino's shoes and the Yankees gave me the ball, I'd feel extremely confident. "This team really believes in me and my abilities." While confidence in himself may not be an issue for Severino, it sure would be reassuring to know the team felt the same way about him.
After struggling to start the season, Nathan Eovaldi eventually turned things around and became a completely different pitcher. There were definitely times during the 2015 season when Eovaldi was the best pitcher on the staff, with some even suggesting he could, or should, start the Wild Card game. Even if he did go down with an arm injury in the last month of the season, the team probably wouldn't have seriously considered Eovaldi, but if Tanaka isn't healthy in April, it makes a lot of sense to consider him. When a pitcher has an in-season Eovalution like Eovaldi did it doesn't seem unreasonable to make him the Opening Day starter.
Okay, I admit I'm not serious here, but how great would it be if the Yankees just said "sorry we took away your closer's role, here you can start Opening Day for us" and let Miller pitch the first inning of the first game? I'm rooting for you Game
EnderBeginerer! Strike out Altuve!
Getting back on a serious note, if it were up to me, of the four real candidates listed above, Sabathia would probably get the start. Going back to the whole notion where the Opening Day starter doesn't really mean much in the grand scheme of the season and, come playoff time, everything is sure to be reshuffled a few times over, it just makes the most sense to give this honor to the leader of the staff. He's clearly loved by his teammates, and I don't think they'd have any problem "going into battle" behind him as their leader.
While some may argue that Sabathia hasn't been very good on Opening Day, since the Yankees have lost five of the six games he's started, the first game of the season doesn't matter much anyway (it's the second game of the season when everything's in jeopardy). Plus, it's baseball, if he can pitch the way he did towards the tail end of the season, he'd certainly give the team a chance to win. It would also make a very nice statement for a veteran pitcher and leader who seemed lost not too long ago. Praise be to the knee brace!
Who do you think should start on Opening Day if Tanaka can't go?