Masahiro Tanaka

Ever since the doctors recommended an injection-and-rehab protocol for Masahiro Tanaka’s slightly torn elbow ligament, the Yankees have remained optimistic about getting him back into the rotation without surgery.

And now that he’s basically one rehab outing away from being activated, it’s starting to feel more and more likely that he’ll actually pitch again this season.

The hope is that a return this season, with a game or two at full-intensity, will be a reliable indication that Tanaka’s elbow has healed enough to step back into the rotation full-time next season. But this is fairly uncertain territory even in the best-case scenario.

“I think that’s always something you have to think about a little bit,” Joe Girardi said. “Once a guy has had an issue one time, could it be that it comes about again? Yeah, I think you have to worry about that. If he pitched in a big league game or two and felt good, you wouldn’t do surgery on a guy that felt good, that’s the bottom line. Our hope is that we get through this and that he’s a pitcher for us next year. That doesn’t mean that something couldn’t arise down the road, but that could happen to any of our pitchers.”

True. Sports Illustrated just ran an interesting article on the surge of Tommy John cases this season, and it included this sentence: “We can’t say whether baseball is in the midst of a true Tommy John epidemic or if we’re just better at diagnosing an injury that, silently, was just as prevalent in previous generations.” Right now, we don’t know simply that Tanaka has an elbow issue. We know specifically that there is (or at least, was) a small tear in his UCL. If you’re looking for a warning sign, that’s about as clear cut as it gets.

So the Yankees will have to manage Tanaka’s workload again next season.

“Carefully,” Girardi said. “I think you just have to see how he’s doing. The plan is you’re going to go to him every five days, but you have a built in off-day usually. Any time you can give him the extra day, obviously we’ll give him the extra day if he gets through this. It makes it difficult to start skipping people all the time; it’s difficult. It messes up your roster a lot of time. But if we have to, we will.”

If Tanaka finishes his rehab program and pitches in a couple of games at the end of the season, that might be the most reassurance the Yankees receive before heading into a winter that’s full of enough unknowns as it is.

“I think he wants to feel that he can go home and have a normal offseason,” Girardi said. “And he can be healthy and come back.”

By Chad Jennings

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