Masahiro Tanaka Injury Could Be Final Death Blow to Yankees' 2014 Playoff Hopes

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 9, 2014

Getty Images

As of this moment, the New York Yankees are still in the hunt for October. That's partially owed to the general mediocrity of the AL East, but also to how they've been able to withstand injuries.

The latest could be the one that finally does them in, though. It might turn out to be a severe one, and it's happened to the one guy the Yankees can't afford to lose to a severe injury.

Masahiro Tanaka.

After being rocked for 10 hits and five earned runs by the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night in the worst start of his MLB career, Bryan Hoch of MLB.com noted that Tanaka said something cryptic afterward.

“I do understand the reason why I was struggling today, but it’s really difficult for me to tell you why that was,” the 25-year-old right-hander said through an interpreter.

Well, now we know. 

George A. King III of the New York Post was first to report that Tanaka was heading back to New York for an MRI. Then came the official word:

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

There it is. The $175 million import from Japan with the sparkling 12-4 record and 2.51 ERA is broken.

For now, anyway.

If there's a bright side, that's definitely it. "Inflammation" is a scary word when it comes to elbows, but "inflammation" doesn't always signal a serious problem.

Take St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright, for example. He dealt with some inflammation in his right elbow in June but didn't even need to go on the DL. He just rested for a few days and has since returned to allow just two runs in 30.2 innings.

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 8: Starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka #19 of the New York Yankees sits in the dugout after leaving the game during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on July 8, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jaso
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Maybe the Yankees will get lucky like that with Tanaka. Maybe he'll only need the 15 days off. With the All-Star break in the middle, that would only mean two missed starts. The Yankees aren't especially well off with pitching, but even they could probably stand to be without Tanaka for just two starts.

But then there's the possibility that the Yankees won't be so lucky, which deserves to be taken seriously.

Here, this bit from Erik Boland of Newsday will scare you:

And here, this bit from Bob Klapisch of The Record will scare you even more:

If Tanaka's elbow inflammation is something that didn't just crop up on Tuesday night, then it could need more than just a couple of weeks of rest to calm down.

If it's a torn ulnar collateral ligament, however, that'll be all she wrote for Tanaka. He'd become roughly the millionth pitcher to need Tommy John surgery in 2014, and he'd then be put on the shelf for a year.

Update: Thursday, July 10

MLB.com's Bryan Hoch has the bad news:

If rehab fails, Tanaka will need Tommy John surgery. And rehab almost always fails.

Now on with the original text of the article. 

Whether it's an extended stay on the disabled list or season-ending Tommy John surgery, the Yankees missing out on more than just a pair of Tanaka starts would be all she wrote for them, too. 

That's a prophecy that's partially written in their record on days when Tanaka doesn't pitch. While they're 13-5 on days he takes the hill, they're just 32-39 when someone else pitches.

It's hard to disregard that as some mirage. By wins above replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version), Tanaka really has been that much better than other Yankees starters:

Top Yankees Starters by WAR, 2014
Masahiro Tanaka18129.14.2
Hiroki Kuroda18109.10.9
Michael Pineda*419.20.9
David Phelps1283.00.6
Chase Whitley1049.00
Shane Greene16.1-0.1
CC Sabathia*846.0-0.3
Ivan Nova*420.2-0.6

*Already on disabled list

The closest thing Tanaka has had to an equal in the Yankees starting rotation is fellow countryman Hiroki Kuroda, and Tanaka's been more than four times as valuable as him.

There's not much help on the way, either.

After he already had Tommy John surgery, the Yankees know that Ivan Nova won't be back. Given the state of Michael Pineda's right shoulder and CC Sabathia's right knee, there's no telling when they'll be back, either. Meanwhile, down on the farm, the Yankees are lacking in MLB-ready arms.

To exacerbate things, the guy they just traded for may not be of much help. Brandon McCarthy posted a 5.01 ERA and a minus-0.5 WAR with the Arizona Diamondbacks. And while some metrics suggest he could be better with a good defense, that's something the Yankees don't have. Baseball Prospectus has them as the 23rd-most efficient team at turning batted balls into outs.

According to FanGraphs, Yankees starters have just a 4.10 ERA. That's with Tanaka in the equation. If he's taken out of the equation for an extended period of time, make no mistake: Ugliness would ensue.

Not that it's just the rotation that would suffer, mind you.

Joel Sherman of the New York Post made a good point here:

In other words: The Yankees losing Tanaka would inevitably put more pressure on the club's bullpen. Which, indeed, is not a happy thought, considering that Joe Girardi has already asked a lot of his bullpen.

According to FanGraphs, only 12 clubs have required more innings from their relievers than the Yankees. Dellin Betances and Adam Warren, in particular, have been taxed quite a bit. Both are in the top six among American League relievers in innings.

Lastly, maybe you don't need me to tell you that the Yankees don't have the kind of offense that can compensate for a weakened pitching staff on a regular basis. With an average of 4.06 runs per game, this year's production is barely better than that of last year's injury-decimated offense. And like with the pitching staff, there's no help in sight.

For all these damning numbers, however, we haven't even hit the most damning one yet. 

By way of FanGraphs, ESPN.com has the Yankees' chances of making the playoffs at 13.6 percent. Since that's the lowest among the above-.500 clubs in the American League, they're already a long shot to make it to October even with the assumption that Tanaka's going to be there the rest of the way.

If he can't be, that number will plummet toward zero. Without him, it's just not going to happen.

If you want to be even more depressed, you can consider how maybe the Yankees should have been better prepared for this. Tanaka pitched over 1,300 innings through his age-24 season in Japan, something no pitcher has done in the majors since Frank Tanana in the 1970s. He thus came to the States with a lot more mileage on his arm than your typical 25-year-old.

If you want to be even more depressed, you can consider the Tommy John surgery Tanaka might need in light of the time of year. If he needs surgery and is knocked out of action for a year, he wouldn't be able to return until at least midway through 2015.

Knowing that, it might not be just the Yankees' 2014 playoff hopes that Tanaka's elbow injury kills. It could kill their 2015 playoff hopes, too.

Pitching injuries, man. They really are the worst.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

slash iconYour sports. Delivered.

Enjoy our content? Join our newsletter to get the latest in sports news delivered straight to your inbox!