By Ken Davidoff
DETROIT — Masahiro Tanaka and the Yankees have experienced a strange disconnect all season, haven’t they? Some of the fallen ace’s worst times in 2017 have occurred as his teammates were loving life, and vice versa.
So as Tanaka makes his return from the disabled list Tuesday night, opening the Yankees’ three-game series with the lousy Tigers at Comerica Park, let’s not tie the fates of team and pitcher, because the correlation just hasn’t been there. Rather, let’s recognize the fascinating solo voyage that Tanaka is set to ride from now until he determines his work address for 2018 and beyond.
Call it the Opt-Out Odyssey, and we’re down to the home stretch.
“The team always has to come first,” Tanaka said Sunday, through an interpreter, after he played catch at Fenway Park. “You’re playing for this team. You want to contribute in the best way that you can, but … it’s really been an up-and-down season. … You really have to face that reality.
“I think the thing is that when you get yourself back on track and you start performing better, that means you’re contributing to the team. The bottom line is, that’s basically what I’m trying to do.”
In other words, if he focuses on helping the Yankees, his contract situation will take care of itself.
His contract situation generates chatter because of its arguably unprecedented context. We haven’t seen a player of Tanaka’s caliber put himself out there when he has a well-known medical condition — or have you not heard about the partially torn UCL in his right elbow? — that makes him a de facto time bomb.
Throw in his career-worst ERA (4.92 in 133 2/3 innings) and the fact he had to go on the DL briefly with right shoulder inflammation, and you’ll find industry folks speculating Tanaka will pass on his opt-out and stick with the Yankees for the remaining three years and $67 million — terms the Yankees wouldn’t view as an albatross if Tanaka continues mounting the peripherals (4.27 strikeouts per walks this season) that he compiled prior to his break.
I asked a high-ranking official of a big-market club whether he thought Tanaka could beat three years and $67 million on the open market this winter if he pitched respectably the rest of the way. The official responded, on the condition of anonymity: “Maybe on total value. I doubt he gets that AAV (annual average value of $22.33 million). I bet he doesn’t opt out, but it’s a guess.”
I asked a competing agent (Tanaka is represented by Casey Close) the same question.
“Definitely no on AAV,” the agent said, not for attribution. “I’m not sure he gets more on the total.”
A second high-ranking official of a second big-market club offered this anonymous wisdom: “I suspect Tanaka, with only three years [left], may look to get more, but I think a bigger factor is how much he likes playing there. It’s hard for me to see him opting out.”
Tanaka appears to like playing for the Yankees, although as you can see from his words above, he isn’t exactly an open book. And if he CAN pitch more like an ace the rest of the way, decreasing the gopher-ball tendency that has cursed him, and even help the Yankees get deep into the playoffs? In an underwhelming free-agent class, with Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish topping the starting-pitching list, maybe Tanaka would calculate that it would be worth putting himself out there. Or, a la CC Sabathia, he could use the threat of the opt-out as leverage to get an extension from the Yankees.
If you enjoy the off-the-field drama of baseball’s finances, Tanaka presents a fascinating case. If that’s not your bag, then enjoy seeing whether he can pitch the Yankees to their first postseason series since 2012. That would connect all of our plot lines in the most exciting manner possible.