Predicting the Domino Effect if Yankees Ace Masahiro Tanaka Doesn't Rebound

Jacob ShaferFeatured ColumnistMay 31, 2017

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 26:  Masahiro Tanaka #19 of the New York Yankees in action against the Oakland Athletics at Yankee Stadium on May 26, 2017 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Oakland Athletics defeated the  New York Yankees 4-1.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

If there is such a thing as an encouraging loss, New York Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka had one Friday.

In 7.1 innings against the Oakland Athletics, Tanaka yielded five hits, one earned run, no walks and recorded a season-high 13 strikeouts.

The Yanks lost, 4-1, but they had to be pleased with Tanaka's ace-like turn.

New York's ostensible No. 1 starter has vacillated between mediocre and downright dreadful in 2017. He owns a 5.86 ERA in 55.1 innings overall and sports an especially ugly 7.82 ERA in May. Friday marked the first time Tanaka has posted a double-digit strikeout total.

Naturally, questions arose about the health of the Japanese stud's right elbow. That's not the problem, Tanaka and the Yankees insist.

"As far as it being one of the worst slumps in my career, I probably have to agree with that," Tanaka said, per Fox Sports. "You have to grind it out. You can't put your head down. Physically, there's no problems at all. I feel fine."

Tanaka owns a 7.82 ERA in May.
Tanaka owns a 7.82 ERA in May.Elsa/Getty Images

Manager Joe Girardi concurred.

"We haven't seen a real drop in velocity. We haven't seen him not being able to make his start," Girardi said, per the same source. "We haven't seen him receiving extra treatment. He's just in a little rut now that he needs to get out [of]. He feels fine."

Tanaka looked better than fine against Oakland. Perhaps he has turned a corner. After building a legend in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball and posting a 3.07 ERA in 199.2 innings last year with New York, the 28-year-old deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Still, it must be asked: What if he doesn't rebound? What if Friday was the anomaly, and Tanaka finishes the season with a gaudy ERA and a trail of mixed results?

If that happens, a series of dominoes will fall for the first-place Yankees, who are allegedly in the midst of a youth movement but are also unequivocally in contention.

           

Domino No. 1: The Yankees Go Shopping for an Ace in July

If Tanaka wobbles into the summer, the Yankees will shop for a top-shelf arm at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. 

Luis Severino (4-2, 2.93 ERA, 61.1 innings pitched, 69 strikeouts) and Michael Pineda (6-2, 3.32 ERA, 59.2 innings pitched, 66 strikeouts) have shouldered the load, while the bullpen owns the fourth-best ERA (2.96) in baseball.

Add an offense that's second in the American League in runs scored, and it's no wonder New York sits at 30-19, three games up on the rival Boston Red Sox in the AL East.

To keep it going, the Yankees will need rotation depth.

Neither Severino nor Pineda has the track record to ensure continued success. New York has talent marinating in the minors, but none of the club's top pitching prospects are ready to contribute at the big league level.

There will be plenty of buyers come July and perhaps only a few marquee names on the block. Chicago White Sox lefty Jose Quintana figures to draw widespread interest, as will Sonny Gray of the A's, Jason Vargas of the Kansas City Royals and the Tampa Bay Rays' Chris Archer and Alex Cobb.

White Sox lefty Jose Quintana is one of several marquee arms who could be available at the trade deadline.
White Sox lefty Jose Quintana is one of several marquee arms who could be available at the trade deadline.Jon Durr/Getty Images

The Yanks have the pieces to swing a swap, provided they're willing to raid a well-stocked farm. General manager Brian Cashman has resisted the urge recently, but further bad results from Tanaka could force his hand.

             

Domino No. 2: Tanaka Doesn't Opt Out

Before the season, it was widely assumed Tanaka would exercise his post-2017 opt-out and angle for a ludicrous offseason payday. If he turns the ship around, he might do exactly that.

If he doesn't, he should consider staying put and collecting the $67 million he's owed through 2020.

As Steven Martano of Beyond the Box Score put it:

"In order for Masahiro Tanaka to set himself up to cash-in on his opt-out this offseason, he has to turnaround his entire season, and fast. He'd have to accumulate at least four wins over the next four months, and even then, it might not be enough because of the hole he's dug himself into..."

It's the paradox of this opt-out age: If a guy plays well enough to earn his contract, he'll pull the rip cord. If he doesn't, he'll hang around and collect the cash.

              

Domino No. 3: The Yankees Have Less to Spend Next Winter and Beyond

The Yankees have deep pockets, but they aren't bottomless.

If Tanaka doesn't opt out, the $22 million New York owes him in 2018 and 2019 and the $23 million the club will shell out in 2020 limits its ability to chase free agents.

That'll be especially significant in the 2018-19 offseason, when the likes of Carlos Carrasco, Dallas Keuchel and Clayton Kershaw could be available. 

That's just on the pitching side. The lauded 2018-19 class may also feature offensive heavyweights such as third baseman Manny Machado and right fielder Bryce Harper.

Bryce Harper headlines a loaded potential 2018-19 free-agent class.
Bryce Harper headlines a loaded potential 2018-19 free-agent class.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Tanaka's salary won't end the Yankees' ability to ink oversized novelty checks. It won't help, though, especially if the Japanese is pitching like a replacement-level scrub.

To paraphrase Girardi, Tanaka needs to climb out of his rut.

Otherwise, the dominoes will fall, and the result will be a jumbled, unencouraging mess.

        

All statistics current as of Tuesday and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball Reference.