While the Yankees have a bright future, they currently have a potentially fatal flaw in their rotation. Calling it an area of weakness would be an understatement, considering the staff’s short- and long-term futures are both chock full of question marks.
The club has just one anchor among their starting pitchers in ace Masahiro Tanaka, and he’s followed by a number of unknowns. There’s the 36-year-old CC Sabathia, who had for “clean up” surgery on his knee and is likely in his final season with the club. Up next is Michael Pineda, who had the seventh worst qualified ERA in baseball last season and is also set to hit free agency after next season.
That’s all the Yankees have in their current rotation. It will take until next spring to find out who will be chosen for the next two spots, though all four candidates (Luis Severino, Bryan Mitchell, Chad Green, and Luis Cessa) have clear faults. To make it worse, free agency is mostly barren for the next couple of offseasons, and the cost of pitching on the trade market is sky-high.
This alone might sound worrisome, but it’s about to get even worse. Remember the “anchor” mentioned in Masahiro Tanaka? He might be on his way out as well, with an opt-out built into his contract following the end of next season. If Tanaka can continue pitching the way he has, he has no reason to stay in New York when a better contract could be had on the open market. One of the only logical reasons for him to stay is in the event of an injury, in which case the Yankees could then be stuck with another payroll liability. This looks like a hard-to-win situation for the club, at the worst possible time, at the worst possible position.
When Tanaka came to the Yankees as a 25-year-old phenom from Japan, he agreed to a seven-year, $155 million contract ($22M each season until the final season, at $23M) with an opt-out following the 2017 season. After three straight seasons of well-above-average (2015) to elite (2014 and 2016) seasons, there’s no disputing that Tanaka is in the upper echelon of starting pitchers.
Although Tanaka is getting paid very well, there’s no doubt that a new contract via free agency would be an upgrade. With elite pitching nearly impossible to come by, he would be one of the best pitchers available (along with Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish). Considering how much previous elite starters have been paid, Tanaka would be in for a certain raise with several more years tacked onto the contract—an important addition considering Tanaka’s shaky UCL.
There’s absolutely a case for Tanaka to remain with the Yankees based on comfort and familiarity alone, plus a reduced risk of a medical issue popping up during a physical over the offseason, but common sense would point to him electing free agency. If Tanaka does stay, though, there’s no guarantee it will be good news for the Yankees. As much as I hate to bring up this subject, Tanaka has a lengthy injury history, especially in his balky elbow, and finished the season sidelined with a strained forearm. If the 27-year-old were to incur a major arm injury next season, he would very likely stick with his current contract. In a worst case scenario, this could spiral into a burdensome contract for the Yankees.
While I won’t go as far as to say this is a lose-lose situation for New York, especially considering the very real possibility that Tanaka sticks with his current contract, the risk of him leaving is scary enough that it’s worth fretting about a year in advance. His departure could be disastrous for the club, especially considering how poor their current rotation’s outlook is.
With that in mind, should the Yankees deem Tanaka completely healthy, it would make sense to talk extension with him. Like they did with Sabathia in 2011, the team could avoid the opt-out situation entirely with a new contract (with an increase in both salary and length).
Although their deal with Sabathia has since turned into a poor investment, the Yankees should feel safer investing in Tanaka—a younger pitcher who doesn’t rely on velocity and power to succeed. Even with the inherent risk of injury, the team simply can’t afford to lose another pitcher, though they certainly can afford to give their ace a raise.