Masahiro Tanaka turned 29 this week and just wrapped a playoff run that established him as the October ace of the Yankees. He had a 0.90 ERA in three starts, two of those against the eventual world champion Astros.
Despite a disappointing regular season by his standards, Tanaka appeared to build some last-minute momentum for a potential shot at free agency, made possible by the opt-out clause in his seven-year, $155-million contract.
So why did he choose to stay put? The reasons probably are a bit more complicated than merely the love for the Yankees he conveyed in Friday’s two-sentence statement.
“It was a simple decision for me,” Tanaka said, “as I have truly enjoyed the past four years playing for this organization and for the wonderful fans of New York.”
Still, the primary purpose of an opt-out clause is to transform a huge pile of money into an even bigger one, even if it’s only adding another year or two to an existing deal. CC Sabathia, for example, used his 2011 opt-out to swap the remaining four years and $92 million left on his original deal with the Yankees for a new five-year, $122-million pact that included a $25-million vesting option, which he played under this season.
Tanaka is owed another $67 million, but with an average salary of $22.3 million, that’s below the going rate of an ace-caliber starter yet to reach his 30th birthday. He ranks 10th among the highest-paid pitchers overall, with four of them — Zack Greinke, David Price, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer — at $30 million or higher.
The modest hope for Tanaka, at his age, would have been to push for another season or two, maybe with a slight bump to his AAV. And if this were any other offseason for the Yankees, perhaps Brian Cashman might have gone along with that. But Tanaka picked the wrong time to have an inconsistent year, posting a career-worst 4.74 ERA and teeing up home runs at a rate of 1.8 per nine innings, unprecedented for him.
Did that dip in performance have anything to do with the small tear in his UCL discovered during his rookie season in 2014? Doubtful. But it certainly made his health part of the conversation, even after Tanaka posted a 9.8 K/9 ratio, his best as a Yankee. The Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright pitched six seasons with a manageable UCL tear before needing Tommy John surgery, so Tanaka could have another three or more in him. Maybe he’ll be fortunate enough to avoid it entirely.
But with that elbow issue on his resume, regardless of the time passed or how much it may have improved through platelet-rich plasma treatment, Tanaka lost some key leverage on the opt-out front. And without the hint of aggressive outside suitors, Tanaka couldn’t get his ideal scenario — to stay put in the Bronx, but with a pay raise.
We do believe that Tanaka truly wanted to stay with the Yankees. He seems genuinely comfortable with this team and this city. And for a pitcher who also strives to be on the big stage, he remains on a team that’s certainly on the upswing, with a decent chance of playing in a World Series during the next three years.
In his final season in Japan, Tanaka went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in leading Rakuten to the title. He established himself as a money pitcher, just as he did this October. He’d like to continue polishing that reputation, and he mentioned in his statement that he’s “committed” to bringing a championship back to the Steinbrenner family and New York.
In the end, Tanaka blinked. The Yankees definitely gave off a vibe that they’d let Tanaka walk if he opted out, stirred by their public insistence about getting under next season’s $197-million luxury tax threshold. But with Tanaka on board, we wonder if his presence could be helpful in the Yankees’ pursuit of Shohei Otani, who is expected to be available as soon as the posting system is ironed out in the coming weeks.
Otani, a slugger/pitcher in the Ruthian mold, is the biggest star to come out of Japan since Tanaka. But under the new collective-bargaining agreement, Otani — who is 23 — is limited by the international free-agent signing rules, so he can command a bonus only in the $10-million range, eliminating the type of bidding war that went on for Tanaka.
Under the current posting system, any club can negotiate with Otani by paying $20 million to the Nippon Ham Fighters, his current club; then he gets to pick his destination. It’s possible that Tanaka could be a mentor for Otani as he transitions to the majors, but to this point, it’s been difficult to determine what Otani is looking for in choosing an MLB team.
For Tanaka, the $155 million was a big factor. But after Friday’s announcement, it won’t be a penny more for the next three years.