Will Masahiro Tanaka opt-out of his contract?

As the final days of the MLB season approach us, and the offseason creeps up, there are several decisions facing the Yankees. As a team that defied the odds and came within one game of the World Series, they need to make sure that this offseason they secure the assets they need, and don’t mess with the formula that got them as far as it did. A major asset to this team’s winning formula is Masahiro Tanaka.
Photo Credit: AP

Acquired in 2014, Tanaka was highly touted as the next ace of the Yankees staff. With a devastating split finger, and an immaculate record in the Japanese league, the Yankees threw everything they had at him to secure him as an anchor to their rotation. He inked a seven-year $155 million deal, with an opt-out clause for 2017. While some club’s jaws would drop at a $155 million-dollar deal to a pitcher who’s never played in the MLB, the Yankees are no strangers to throwing money where they see fit (see Alex Rodriguez and Jacoby Ellisbury).
In his first year, he was as advertised, going 13-5 with a 2.77 ERA and three complete games. However, he suffered a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his throwing elbow and Yankees fans held their collective breathe. Luckily, Tanaka was able to avoid Tommy John surgery and a year plus on the shelf. In the next two seasons following the scare, he was very good, going 12-7 in 2015 and then 14-4 in 2016 with a 3.51 and 3.07 ERA respectively. The 2017 season, was a whole different story.
Coming into 2017, Tanaka was expected to have his best year, after a phenomenal spring where he was untouchable. While spring is really not a good indicator of regular season performance, it was nice to see Tanaka dominant and looking to put his elbow concerns to rest. Tanaka was named the opening day starter, but fell extremely flat and was rocked in 2 2/3 innings, giving up 8 hits, 7 runs all of which earned. 
Initial thoughts were “Well, maybe this is a fluke”, and it did appear that way for the rest of the month of April, as he seemed to be improving. He threw an absolute gem on April 27th against Boston and Chris Sale, going all nine and allowing only three hits and no runs. 
Unfortunately, this momentum would not last long, as he would go on to have an atrocious month of May. He went 2-4 and had an ERA of 8.42 in the month. One of his uglier starts of the month came on Derek Jeter’s number retirement day, where he unceremoniously dished out four home runs and eight earned runs in on 1 2/3 innings.
As the season wore on, he became maddingly inconsistent, mixing a vintage start with an absolute dud. He also saw himself on the DL in August with shoulder inflammation, to add fuel to the 2017 dumpster fire that was seemingly compiling. 
He managed to bookend his month of September with two excellent starts, the first going seven innings and only giving up one run on five hits, and the latter going seven innings and no runs with 15 strikeouts (a season high). This last start of the season left fans scratching their heads as to which Tanaka would appear in the playoffs.
The Tanaka that showed up in the playoffs was more than anyone could have asked for. He was masterful in his starts, going deep into games, keeping hitters guessing and showing total confidence the entire time. Against arguably two of the best offenses in baseball in the Cleveland Indians and the Houston Astros, he only surrendered 10 hits and two earned runs, while striking out 18. This was the man the Yankees thought they were getting when he signed back in 2014, he showed up on the big stage for his ball club.
Photo Credit: USA Today
Now, the clock is ticking for him to decide if he wants to opt-out of his contract or not. He has been very stoic in his responses thus far to the question of his opt-out, citing that his focus was on his starts in the postseason, but the lack of commitment either way lends to a lot of speculation.  While his playoff accolades speak very strongly for his case, and history has shown that those are the numbers “that count”, his full season body of work speaks otherwise. Statistically, he had his worst season of his career going 13-12 with a 4.74 ERA. His ERA puts him 50th out of 58 qualifying pitchers (must pitch 162 innings to qualify for the ERA title), not great to say the least. His elbow is also a huge question mark, and could be a ticking time bomb. 
On the flip-side of all this, history is on Tanaka’s side if he does choose to opt out. He is coming off a playoff run where he was lights out, and as I mentioned before, these accolades sometimes speak louder than anything (see Pablo Sandoval, David Freese, etc.). He is also arguably better than some of the most recent pitchers who signed large contracts after having mediocre or sub-par years; Jeff Samardzija 5yrs/$90M, Ian Kennedy 5yr/$70M. He is also still 28 (almost 29), in the prime of his career, and pitched in one of the biggest markets in all of baseball. Also, the free agent class upcoming is basically Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta, two names in which Tanaka fits snuggly.
So, what do I think Tanaka and the Yankees do? Personally, I believe that Tanaka will either try and re-work his deal to get an extension and some more money or opt out and then the Yankees will have to try and overpay for him. 
While the first is obviously a much friendlier option all around, I think both would need to happen for the Yankees. They are a team that was one game away from a trip to the World Series and much of it was built on the arm of Masahiro Tanaka. As mentioned before, the free agent class this year is much to be desired, and when you have a guy who is comfortable in your system and has thrived in the high stress market that New York, you need to secure him. 
His elbow is still going to be a cause for concern, but if that time comes, the Yankees will just have to deal with the consequences and rely on their farm system as an insurance policy. In the coming days we will see how this all shakes out, but hopefully we will still see Masahiro Tanaka in pinstripes come 2018.

Article by: AJ Welch


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