Masahiro Tanaka Gives the Yankees Hope for 2015

The Yankees' expensive Japanese import appears to be healthy, giving New York one less thing to worry about for 2015.

Any time you sign a pitcher to a seven-year, $155 million deal, you hold your breath. It becomes even more unnerving when that pitcher is a Japanese import who has never faced Major League hitters before and, at 25 years old, has already logged a lot of innings throwing baseballs in his native country.

Yet, the early returns on Masahiro Tanaka were terrific for the Yankees. He started the season 12-4 with a 2.51 ERA, striking out 135 batters and walking just 19 in his first 129.1 innings this season. He had a nERD of 1.33, which meant he would have given up 1.33 runs a game less, over a 27-out game, than a league average pitcher, and posted a Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) of 3.9 (that's Baseball Reference's number).

Then, all of the very bad things happened.

After his start on July 8th, he was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The worry was New York's new ace would need Tommy John surgery, which would not only have shut him down for the rest of this season, but also likely have kept him out for much, if not most, of 2015. However, doctors advised against surgery and recommended rest and rehab.

On Sunday, Tanaka made it all the way back, pitching 5.1 effective innings against the Toronto in the Yankees' 5-2 win over the Blue Jays. The 10-week layoff has left Tanaka a bit rusty, as he tired in the sixth inning after having given up five hits and striking out four.

It's only one start, but it appears the gamble of avoiding surgery has paid off.

So, how did he look?

Whoa! 148! That's faster than he had thrown before the injury!

Wait a minute...

Oh. Yeah, that sounds more like it.

Clearly, everyone was happy to have Tanaka back.

According to Fangraphs, the average velocity on his fastball this season was 91.1 mph, and he started off his Sunday with a 92 mile-per-hour fastball. So an average velocity of 90.2 mph on his four-seamer Sunday isn't too shabby, especially for a guy who hasn't pitched on a Major League mound since July.

Perhaps the best indication that Tanaka was back to his normal self were the comments by the opposing hitters, with Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista saying after the game, "He looked like the same guy I saw earlier this season." The Yankees certainly hope that's true, as they try to put together the best starting rotation possible for 2015.

Masahiro Tanaka1.333.2134.22.473.031.00
CC Sabathia0.510.1465.284.781.48
Hiroki Kuroda1.783.41913.773.581.17
Brandon McCarthy1.873.2194.23.933.441.25
Michael Pineda0.581.562.
Shane Greene0.841.
Ivan Nova-0.05-0.420.

As of right now, Tanaka appears to be the ace of the staff heading into next year, provided he doesn't have a setback in what will likely be his last start of the season this week in Boston. CC Sabathia is perhaps an even bigger question mark than Tanaka. He's 34, weighs 285 pounds and is having knee issues. It's likely we're seeing the downward side of his career, however, he's slated to earn $23 million next year and $25 million in 2016, so he'll almost certainly be the #2 starter, at least at the start of the season.

Two of their best starters are free agents after the season, leaving the Yankees with some decisions to make. Hiroki Kuroda has very quietly put together a solid season, with the 13th-best fWAR in the AL (3.4) this year, while Brandon McCarthy has been a revelation, going 7-4 in 13 starts since joining New York, with a 2.54 ERA and 2.95 FIP. The Yankees are unlikely to bring both back next year, but could re-sign at least one of them.

That's because there are some options that should allow general manager Brian Cashman to fill out the '15 rotation for less cash. Michael Pineda has been effective since returning from an injury earlier this season, with a 2.15 ERA and FIP of 3.15 in 62.2 innings. He'd be a more cost-effective option as the team's #3 or 4 starter, with Shane Greene slotted in as the #4 or 5. Greene has done a terrific job filling in with all the injuries to the rotation, with a 3.25 ERA and 3.68 FIP in 13 starts. And Ivan Nova will be in the conversation when he returns from his Tommy John surgery, but not until the middle of next season.

Having a healthy Tanaka back certainly helps solidify the top of the rotation, but New York would appear to have some options heading into next year.

The Yankees still have an outside shot at nabbing one of the two wild cards in the AL, however it's still a very, very long shot at 4.5 games out with just a week left to go. Tanaka's encouraging performance on Sunday was more to give the team confidence that he'll be ready to anchor the rotation next season.

So far, it's looking good.