Don't risk it! Masahiro Tanaka should have Tommy John surgery

Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka reacts on the mound Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka reacts on the mound to a home run by the Red Sox's Mike Napoli in the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, June 28, 2014. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

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David Lennon David Lennon has been a staff writer for

David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City

Let's face it. Masahiro Tanaka wasn't hopping a plane to Seattle for the frequent-flier miles. For him to drop in like that on a conference full of orthopedic surgeons, his elbow had to be in bad shape, and as Brian Cashman revealed Thursday night, it most definitely was.

The diagnosis, confirmed by three doctors, is a partial tear -- albeit "small" -- of the ulnar collateral ligament. In other words, Tanaka suddenly went from Rookie of the Year and potential Cy Young Award winner to just another disturbing statistic, added to the rapidly growing pile of elbow casualties during the past year or so.

Cashman said Tanaka plans to go the rehab route instead of immediately opting for Tommy John surgery, but on most occasions, that's merely delaying the inevitable.

The Mets went through almost the exact same thing with Matt Harvey, who was in the middle of a Cy Young-caliber season at age 24 when he felt something wasn't quite right with his elbow.

Harvey's first impulse also was to skip surgery, to strengthen the muscles around the elbow, and return as soon as possible. But the Mets never really bought into that plan. When Harvey was initially diagnosed with the tear, Sandy Alderson already knew the pitcher's fate even before it was decided, and after the swelling subsided, Harvey went along with the surgery.

As of now, without surgery, Tanaka will be out a minimum of six weeks as he receives injections of platelet-rich plasma to aid the recovery process.

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It's a strategy that could get Tanaka back pitching for the Yankees by September, which is pretty good timing if the Orioles and Blue Jays don't run away with the AL East. Still, a partial UCL tear is not going to fix itself, and Tanaka has six seasons left on his contract after this one.

Who's to say Tanaka won't need surgery next April if the tear worsens? Or next July? Or at some point in 2016? That's not very reassuring for Tanaka or the Yankees. Both will be holding their breath every time he takes the mound.

"Nobody is saying that he can't rehab and be completely fine and never have an issue again," Harvey said. "But for me, it was a mental thing and something I didn't want to continue thinking about."

While it's true that nearly every pitcher with high mileage is nicked up in some way -- a bone spur here, a frayed rotator cuff there -- with those who are not sidelined, many times it's unknown because the pitcher hasn't succumbed to the MRI tube yet. Ignorance is bliss.

But the Yankees are past that point with Tanaka, who was a workhorse for the Rakuten Golden Eagles -- 1,315 innings in seven seasons -- and evidently showed no alarming wear-and-tear in passing his pre-signing physical. Maybe all that heavy lifting should have been more of a concern. But the focus has to be doing what's best for Tanaka long-term and not putting his career in jeopardy.

Does delaying Tommy John surgery satisfy that requirement? We see a lot of Harvey in Tanaka -- a fierce, stubborn competitor who gives up the baseball reluctantly. Harvey didn't want to go under the knife because he wanted to pitch, to dominate, to win. That's got to be what Tanaka is feeling -- along with the uneasiness of what lies ahead.

A bright future feels as if it has dimmed somewhat. But plenty of pitchers have resumed All-Star careers after Tommy John surgery, and Tanaka could be next in line before long.

"After waking up so many times with the same mindset, like 'When's it going to be? Is this the day it goes out?' I'd had enough," Harvey said. "I went down to Florida and had the surgery."

And now the clock is ticking on Tanaka.

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