Given that he has the ability to opt out of his Yankees contract after the season, the most important start of Masahiro Tanaka’s major-league career also could be his last in pinstripes. A good performance against the Indians on Sunday night in Game 3 of the American League Division Series could enhance his value and increase the likelihood of his departure.
Tanaka, then 25, made a ballyhooed arrival in 2014 when he arrived from Japan as the projected ace of the staff. He reportedly spent $195,000 to charter his own jet for the ballroom-like news conference, which did not set him back much, considering his seven-year contract for $155 million.
Now he could be seeking even more. The Yankees owe him $22 million a year for the next three seasons. By opting out, he would be gambling that another team would top that. Or the Yankees could avoid having him opt out by sweetening his deal, as they did in 2011 with CC Sabathia.
The Yankees have not commented. Casey Close, Tanaka’s agent, did not respond to an email.
Tanaka was asked Saturday if he anticipates returning to the Yankees in 2018, and he did anything but give a resounding yes to the question. “I mentioned this from day one,’’ he said through his translator. “I’ll have the whole offseason to think about what I’ll do moving forward, and that hasn’t changed.’’
Tanaka was 12-4 with a 2.51 ERA in the first 18 starts of his career but was found to have a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, and that robbed him of what had been a 96-mph fastball. He has been up and down ever since, and now Joe Girardi will hand him the ball in an elimination game for the Yankees.
Two years ago, Tanaka still was the ace when he started the wild-card game against the Astros. He was outpitched by Dallas Keuchel in the 3-0 loss, giving up two runs in five innings. Indians starter Carlos Carrasco is no less formidable as opponent with an 18-6 record and 226 strikeouts in 200 innings. The Yankees did reach him for five earned runs in an 8-1 victory Aug. 6, but he went 9-1 after that.
“We’re going to go out there [Sunday], no pressure, nothing about that,’’ Carrasco said. “Up two games, you never take it easy.’’
Tanaka was 5-7 with a 6.34 ERA on June 17 but recovered to finish at 13-12, 4.74. He has not pitched since facing the Blue Jays on Sept. 29, when he struck out a career-high 15 batters in seven innings. “We need him to pitch like he pitched the other day,’’ Joe Girardi said. “This is a team [the Indians] that’s going to grind out at-bats, and he needs to grind out at-bats with them.’’
Indians manager Terry Francona said of Tanaka, “He’s been a little inconsistent this year, mostly in the first half. Second half, he’s been much better and his last start was really good. Couple things. When he has power to his pitches, but also — and I don’t know if he refers to it as a split, change, whatever you want to call it — but at times it can be a huge weapon for him.’’
Tanaka said he has a plan against the Indians. “The important thing is going to be just making good pitches, executing pitches, and that’s it,’’ he said. “But as far as feeling pressure, obviously, yes, there is pressure, but that can’t get me away from what I need to do on the mound. So my goal or my focus is just going out there and pitch.’’