The New York Yankees pay Masahiro Tanaka roughly $22 million a year, and with that money, they expect the righty to be an ace, or dominant number-two starter. And Tanaka has provided them with such a presence in years past, but whether general manager Brian Cashman, manager Aaron Boone, and the Yankees believe he can be such a pitcher going forward will dictate their trade deadline agenda.
Tuesday afternoon, Tanaka returned from a one month stint on the disabled list, and he did not look like himself. Lasting just 4.1 innings and surrendering six hits, two walks, and three runs, he didn’t have his command and didn’t look sharp against the Baltimore Orioles. At the same time, Tanaka wasn’t pitching well before going on the DL either. Before suffering two hamstring strains running the bases, Tanaka owned a 4.58 ERA, was getting hit hard, and was on pace to surrender a career-high in home runs. He, at times, doesn’t have his command, has been inconsistent, and isn’t pitching deep into games.
Outside of Luis Severino, the Yankees rotation cannot be relied on in the postseason. Granted CC Sabathia is keeping the Yankees in games, he too isn’t pitching deep into games and is putting runners on base often; Sonny Gray has struggled immensely in both the eye test and nearly every pitching statistic; Domingo German and Jonathan Loaisiga have had their moments, but, overall, there’s little confidence that they can take the hill in the postseason or be relied on to execute every fifth day.
Lefty Jordan Montgomery got off to a plausible start, but his season quickly came to an end due to elbow soreness — later resulting in Tommy John surgery. Going into Wednesday night, the Yankees were 13th in rotation ERA (3.92), which while not bad, doesn’t matchup with other American League powerhouses such as the Houston Astros (1st, 3.00) and Cleveland Indians (3rd, 3.40) in terms of production and reliability.
The Yankees rotation is the reason why there’s so much talk concerning what they’ll do at the deadline. The problem they’re faced with is that there’s no true ace or top-of-the-rotation force to go out and acquire.Masahiro Tanaka's health and performance will set the trade deadline agenda for the @Yankees, says @RPStratakos.Click To Tweet
Sure, trading for Jacob deGrom would give the Yankees the best one-two pitching punch in the game, but the New York Mets haven’t given any clear indications that they’re in complete fire sale mode. Plus, acquiring deGrom would likely cost at least four prominent young players, and the Mets haven’t exactly been fond of making big trades with the Yankees in years past. The same logic will apply to righty Noah Syndergaard.
Outside of the Mets’ highly-respected rotation duo, some notable pitchers poised to be dangled in trade talks between now and the July 31 Trade Deadline include Cole Hamels, Michael Fulmer, J.A. Happ, and former Yankee righty Nathan Eovaldi. But none of those pitchers have executed at a high level this season meaning the Yankees would be acquiring a number three or four starter.
Then there’s the Manny Machado wrinkle. According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the Yankees have expressed interest in acquiring Machado from the Orioles. And perhaps the fact that they’re kicking the tires on a trade for the superstar shortstop, as well as Kansas City Royals infielder Mike Moustakas, shows that they have trust in Tanaka righting the ship?
Tanaka has never been one to get out to hot starts in the opening weeks of the regular season. In fact, he tends to start seasons slow, pick up steam, and pitch at a high level towards the end. Look at what he did in the playoffs last season. With their backs against the wall facing elimination down 2-0 to the Cleveland Indians in the AL Divisional Series, Tanaka was remarkable in Game 3, getting the Yankees back in the series. Surrendering just four baserunners (three hits, one walk) and not allowing any baserunners to cross home in seven innings of work, he kept the Yankees alive. He then surrendered just two runs in 13 innings pitched versus the Houston Astros in the AL Championship Series.
The starting rotation options are far from aplenty, but, at the same time, it could mean that a contender or two overpays for someone to add depth; it’s a trap the Yankees cannot fall for. They have a surplus of young talent, but it has to be utilized in trades accordingly and not for the sake of an upgrade. Now, if the Yankees can acquire one of those starters in a reasonable trade, they should go forth with a trade. But, at the end of the day, Cashman and the Yankees may feel inclined to pay up for a proven commodity no matter the struggles they may be enduring.
The Yankees have one of the best lineups in the game, headlined by Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar, and, when healthy, Gary Sanchez. They also have arguably the best bullpen in the game, and that facet of their ballclub is a big reason why their rotation’s struggles have not been so severe. But if changes aren’t made, or certain members on the 25-man roster don’t step up, the Yankees won’t be playing in the Fall Classic, and they especially won’t surpass the Boston Red Sox in the American League East.
Now, if the Yankees go out and acquire a serviceable or proven starter, does it mean that they think Tanaka is no longer a true number one or two starter? Of course not, but if they go out of their way to force a trade using their depth, it’ll show that they don’t trust Tanaka to be that guy anymore. In a five-game series, you can go with a three-man rotation; the Yankees did it themselves in 2009 with Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Andy Pettitte. And if Tanaka is the premier righty the baseball world has seen before, then the Yankees could go with Severino, Tanaka, and Sabathia in the ALDS. Acquiring a pitcher to be what Tanaka is supposed to be would speak volumes as to where they feel his talents lie.
Tanaka is just two years removed from being in the conversation to possibly win the AL Cy Young Award. The question is whether the Yankees believe that version of Tanaka still exists?