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Masahiro Tanaka likely to make MLB debut April 4

Yankees Masahiro Tanaka works out at Steinbrenner Field

Yankees Masahiro Tanaka works out at Steinbrenner Field on the morning of Feb. 15, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

SARASOTA, Fla. -- It's looking more and more as though Masahiro Tanaka will make his major-league debut April 4 against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.

Although the Yankees have yet to make any official announcement about their regular-season rotation, everyone has been operating under the assumption that CC Sabathia will start Opening Day against the Astros in Houston on April 1. And now, with just over two weeks left in spring training, the other spots appear to be falling into place: Hiroki Kuroda at No. 2, followed by Ivan Nova, Tanaka and the winner of the Michael Pineda/David Phelps battle.

With Tanaka scheduled to make his second Grapefruit League start -- and third appearance overall -- in a 75-pitch outing against the Braves Sunday, pitching coach Larry Rothschild dropped a few hints Saturday about where he could slot into the rotation.

Above all, the overriding priority seems to be Tanaka's transition to a major-league workload, and the Yankees are wary of pitching him too much too soon as he tries to adjust to starting every fifth day.

Complicating those plans is an April schedule that has the Yankees playing 13 consecutive games before finally getting their first breather on April 14. If Tanaka starts April 4 against the Blue Jays, that lines him up for the Orioles on April 9 at Yankee Stadium and -- after the off day -- home against the Cubs on April 15.

"I think we weigh the schedule a little bit where he can get extra rest early in the season to try to keep him strong through the year," Rothschild said Saturday. "We've got the 13 games in a row to start, so that's going to impact when we decide to pitch him."

How drastic is the transition for Tanaka? In Japan, he had only one start per week, which meant two additional days of rest compared to the majors. With so much down time, that explains why Japanese pitchers are so anxious to throw more between starts in an effort to stay sharp.

On a tighter schedule here, Tanaka won't get that opportunity. He'll have the typical side-session tune-up between starts and probably not much on top of that, aside from playing catch. Unless Tanaka wants to make alterations -- and Rothschild approves.

"Maybe down the road, if I feel I need to work on something more specific with some of my pitches," Tanaka said through an interpreter, "there is a chance I would ask the pitching coach if I could throw more."

So far, Tanaka and Rothschild seem to be on the same page when it comes to preparation. He's looked comfortable in his two Grapefruit outings, even back on March 6, when Tanaka had to endure a 90-minute thunderstorm/tornado delay before taking the mound against the Phillies in Clearwater.

Spring training is always a meticulously mapped-out stretch for pitchers. But Tanaka is under a microscope because this is all new to him -- and because of the not-so-small matter of the Yankees' $175-million investment in a 25-year-old rookie who has never thrown a pitch in the majors.

To date, Tanaka has been contained to the National League East, twice pitching against the Phillies before facing the Braves Sunday at Steinbrenner Field. If the Yankees choose to give him an extra day of rest this week, he could face the Twins on Saturday. However Rothschild chooses to proceed, it's certain Tanaka will be kept away from Toronto during the final week of March.

There is always the possibility that the Yankees will name Tanaka the No. 3 -- just as Brian Cashman suggested after signing him in January. In that scenario, he would go back-to-back with Kuroda, presumably an unfavorable combo of similar pitchers for the Yankees.

Rothschild didn't sound overly concerned about that, but he again stressed the schedule as the biggest factor.

New York Sports