Later on tonight, Yankees fans will get their first look at Masahiro Tanaka, as the Bombers host the Braves at George M. Steinbrenner Field. It will begin a season-long theme of guarded optimism whenever Tanaka takes the mound; belief (bordering on knowledge) that he has the potential to be dominant, and fear that any given pitch could be hist last--for a while.
Tanaka's choice last year to rehab his partially torn right ulnar collateral ligament as opposed to undergoing surgery is a story line behind every offering the righty throws in 2015 (the Yankees' website is quick to remind you that decision was supported by "four leading specialists"). The two starts Tanaka made in September didn't really mean anything, similar to his appearance tonight. The point was to make sure he could go out there, deliver a pre-determined number of pitches, and leave injury-free.
On account of the intense watch on every movement he makes this year, and because most of the attention surrounding Tanaka since the injury occurred has been gloomy, some might (not sure how, but they might) forget just how incredible the righty was in the season's first half. In the first year of a seven-year contract, Tanaka was coasting to, at the very least, an AL Rookie of the Year nod, if not a serious shot at the AL Cy Young award.
Just over eight months since that fateful start in Cleveland when Tanaka left with discomfort in that valuable elbow of his, he gets ready to begin his second season in the bigs, with more uncertainty in front of him than anyone would feel okay with. The Yankees and Tanaka have all said the right things so far this spring; that the 26-year-old feels great and that no one is thinking about another injury, but I find it hard to believe that no one, not even Brian Cashman and Tanaka himself, will be nervous about what could happen.
An incredible amount of potential team success lives and dies with the Japanese right-hander. He showed last year the potential to be an elite ace in this league and a leader of a rotation that desperately seeks durability and effectiveness at the front. He has a chance not to be just the team's best pitcher, but its best player as well. A strong, healthy Tanaka in 2015 is most likely an All-Star and a huge reason why the Yankees play meaningful games down the stretch and perhaps even into October.
Last month, I wrote at length about what a special year it could be for Tanaka if everything goes right. A Tanaka-Pineda (or #Tanakineda) combination could surprise a lot of people and even possibly be one of the better duos in the American League. Is anyone willing to bet on that though?
In many ways, Tanaka is very representative of what the 2015 Yankees are. There is potential for success–great success, at that–however, there is also potential for injury and disappointment. The issue with the type of injury Tanaka rehabbed from, a similar one to what Yu Darvish is reportedly set to have Tommy John surgery for, is that everything is fine, right until it isn't. The team can try to watch his innings early on in the season. They can even sporadically skip his turn in the rotation. As the epidemic of elbow injuries continues to spread throughout the majors, one thing has been made clear: no one is safe, no matter your history, no matter how good you are, no matter how hard you throw.
Tanaka's two innings tonight against the Braves will be scrutinized, every windup examined, and every pitch dissected (and who said spring training doesn't count?). Every start he makes has both the promise to end up on Yankees Classics in 2017 or a crushing blow to the current roster's shot at a postseason run. The ceiling for Tanaka is clearly something for the Yankees and their fans to dream of at night. Unfortunately, that dream can turn to a nightmare awfully quick.