TAMPA, Fla. — A few eyebrows were raised two weeks ago when Masahiro Tanaka said he won’t play in this year’s World Baseball Classic, something the righthander did in 2009 and 2013.
Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild said it has nothing to do with the pitcher’s health, which always is Yankees fans’ primary concern with Tanaka.
“He’s ahead of where he was last year,” Rothschild said Monday afternoon. “He’s already been on the mound a little bit. Coming in, he seems to be in a good place.”
Tanaka, who worked out at the club’s minor-league complex Monday and is expected to throw a bullpen session Wednesday, entered last year’s spring training a bit behind after having a bone spur in his right elbow removed shortly after the 2015 season ended. The deliberate pace in spring training hardly acted as a hindrance as Tanaka went 14-4 with a 3.07 ERA in 31 games.
General manager Brian Cashman has said that Tanaka, 28, who missed his final scheduled start of last season with a minor flexor mass strain in his right forearm, likely will be brought along slowly again, though exactly how that will play out hasn’t been determined.
“Hard to tell until we get some sides in and stuff, but he understands what spring training is for,” Rothschild said. “Last year, everybody was concerned all through spring about him, about his stuff and this and that, but he knew what he was doing in getting ready for the season. He’s got a pretty good understanding, in spite of everything that’s going on around him.”
That was partly a reference to the relentless media attention Tanaka receives from the sizable Japanese press corps that covers his every move. His position as the clear-cut Yankees ace also brings plenty of scrutiny. That attention won’t dissipate this season, a big one for him in a variety of ways.
Tanaka, 39-16 with a 3.12 ERA in three seasons since signing a seven-year, $155-million contract with the Yankees, has an out clause he can exercise after the season. It is something he’s almost sure to do if his 2017 performance comes close to approaching what he contributed in 2016, when he logged 199 2⁄3 innings, his most since coming to the majors, and was in the thick of the American League ERA race for starting pitchers. More often than not, Tanaka resembled the pitcher he was during his rookie season, when he was 11-1 with a 1.99 ERA after 14 starts.
Later that season, Tanaka was diagnosed with a slight tear in his ulnar collateral ligament. It has not required surgery but is a consistent source of conjecture — just not by the Yankees.
“Same as with every pitcher, you keep your eyes and ears open and try to understand what’s going on with him,” Roths child said. “But I don’t know that it’s going to be that much different as it would be with anybody else.”
Cashman said during the general managers’ meetings in November that Tanaka, CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda are “locked” into the 2017 rotation. Unless he is able to secure more proven arms from the outside, the final two spots are likely to come from a pool that includes righthanders Adam Warren, Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell and Chad Green.
Rothschild said he’s “confident” that the answers to those rotation questions are in camp.
“And hopefully there’s a few nice surprises for us,” he said, “because there’s some kids that are capable of doing that, surprising us.”
Notes & quotes: Warren was among the group of big-leaguers working out at the minor-league complex Monday morning. Also there: Severino, Cessa, relievers Tyler Clippard and Tommy Layne and first baseman-outfielder Tyler Austin. Greg Bird, the favorite to win the job at first base, made his first appearance at the complex, as did Pineda.