By Michael Axisa
Yesterday afternoon the Yankees announced Masahiro Tanaka will make his (hopefully) triumphant return to the rotation on Sunday after more than two months on the shelf with a partially torn elbow ligament. Unfortunately the team is out of the postseason race, so there won’t be a fun “Tanaka comes back from his injury and leads the Yankees to October” storyline to follow. Bummer. That really would have been something.
Tanaka has spent the last two months rehabbing the ligament tear and the last six weeks actively working his way back with bullpen sessions and simulated games. He threw 65 pitches during his most intense simulated game on Monday and apparently that was enough to convince the Yankees he is ready for game action. Tanaka will be limited to 70-75 pitches on Sunday, plus there’s even enough time left in the season for him to make another start after that.
Now, this entire situation is sorta weird. Four doctors (four!) advised Tanaka to rehab his injury rather than undergo Tommy John surgery, but there’s still a chance he will need to go under the knife. In fact, it’s almost an inevitability. Once the ligament starts to tear, even a tiny little bit like Tanaka’s, it’s usually only a matter of time before it goes. It could blow on Sunday, it could blow in April, it could blow in 2023. Adam Wainwright pitched five years with a partial tear before his elbow gave out. Ervin Santana’s been pitching with one since 2009.
No one has any idea when the elbow will give out and that’s why Tanaka is pitching this weekend. To find out if it will happen immediately. The alternative is what, spend the winter resting and rehabbing and hoping it will improve his chances of delaying surgery some small percentage without guaranteeing anything? If four doctors tell you to rehab your $175M pitcher, then you rehab your $175M pitcher. And if he competes his rehab and is healthy enough to pitch, you let him pitch. Going against doctors’ orders in any way would be the most irresponsible thing ever. Fireable offense, no doubt.
“More than anything, I want to see if my body is able to go fully on a Major League mound. Pitch on the mound,” said Tanaka to Chad Jennings yesterday. “That’s by far, (more than) anything, most important to me. Also, the fact that, to be able to contribute in the team’s win would be something important to me too … Even if it’s short, if I’m able to go out there and have a strong outing, it’ll give me some good confidence (that the elbow has healed).”
Tanaka made it clear he wants to test his elbow and see how it holds up before the season lets out. And you know what? I don’t blame him one bit. Put yourself in his shoes. You know you have this ticking time bomb in your elbow, so would you rather see what happens in a meaningless game or two late in the season or having it linger in the back of your mind all winter? Making it through two starts with the elbow intact doesn’t mean the Yankees will be able to pencil him in for 230 innings next year, but it will allow Tanaka to go home for the winter with some peace of mind and that’s important.
So, one of two things will happen when Tanaka starts this weekend. Either he’ll blow out the elbow and need Tommy John surgery, or he’ll come through it healthy and go into the winter feeling good about things. In either case, the Yankees have to approach the offseason assuming Tanaka will miss a lot of time in 2015. They have to prepare for the worst case scenario in this situation no matter what. But there is value in finding out whether he needs surgery right now. There’s also value in letting your ace have a clear mind all winter. The Yankees aren’t sending Tanaka out there recklessly, the doctors are behind them. This is simply the next step in the process.
Because New York is out of the postseason race, they can afford to let Tanaka pitch on Sunday even though he himself admitted he is still rusty following the long layoff. Losing that game won’t matter. Maybe things would be different if they were closer to the second wildcard spot, but I’m guessing not. Either way, Sunday is an important day for Tanaka as well as the 2015 Yankees. The health of his elbow is paramount to the team’s success going forward and this weekend he’ll test it out in game action for the first time, which is the biggest step in his rehab.