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Masahiro Tanaka’s probably not opting out

Masahiro Tanaka is off to his worst start of his career. How will this impact his decision whether to opt out of his contract at the end of the season?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

What a different two months make. At the beginning of April, the Yankees were involved in some early season saber-rattling at the expense of Masahiro Tanaka. An anonymous source told the New York Daily News the Yankees (Hal Steinbrenner in particular) likely would not be interested in signing Tanaka should he choose to opt out of the remaining three years of his $67 million. Hal may get his wish, though it’s hardly what he would have hoped. There’s a good chance Tanaka does not opt-out either due to poor performance or due to health, or, as may be the real case, due to both.

Going into the 2014 season, New York inked Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract which Tanaka could opt out of after four years. It’s a player-friendly perquisite, allowing Tanaka to choose between a guaranteed $67 million for the last three years of his contract, or “taking his chances” on the open market after 2017, knowing with relative certainty what his market rate would be at that time.

Coming into 2017, it looked all but certain that Tanaka would opt out at the end of the year; now, however, it’s not such a sure thing. The first three years in pinstripes, Tanaka was close to the pitcher the Yankees had hoped he’d be when they signed him. Although he has never been an elite, top-five pitcher in the game, he’s been a steady hand at the top of the Yankees’ rotation since joining the staff. Last season he posted his best year yet, notching nearly 200 innings, and posting his best career fWAR at 4.6, sixth-best in the American League.

He will turn 29 years old in November, three years younger than Zack Greinke who opted-out of his Dodgers’ contract at the age of 32... an opt-out that rewarded him with a $206 million payday. All things equal, Tanaka very likely would have gone the same direction as Greinke, especially considering both men are represented by agent Casey Close.

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Generally six or seven weeks of results would hardly raise red flags when we’re talking about a multi-year opt-out versus an even lengthier multi-year contract, but things are rarely what they seem, and Tanaka has an x-factor associated with him: a documented DL stint in 2014 for a small tear in his UCL. Three years later, it’s possible this is the cause of his recent woes, but even if it is not, the optics of the situation are pretty dire.

To date, Tanaka has started nine games and posted 48 innings, barely more than five innings per game. In those 48 innings he has already allowed 13 home runs and only struck out 39 batters. A third of his starts have been absolute clunkers, where he hasn’t gone more than three innings or given up fewer than six earned runs. He’s also had a couple mediocre starts, and one gem (a complete game shutout against Boston).

His stats this year have hardly reaffirmed him as either a) a pitcher in good health or b) an impact-front-line starter.

So what would Tanaka have to do in order to set himself up for an even bigger payday than he’s guaranteed from the Yankees? The cards at this point are pretty well stacked against him.

Only the Yankees have access to Tanaka’s medicals until that moment when he opts out, in which case, the reports become fair game for any team that may wish to sign him.

In his current contract, New York still owes Tanaka $67 million through 2020. This is guaranteed money with no incentive-base; they’ll be signing those checks regardless of whether Tanaka wins the Cy Young Award, or misses 18 months due to Tommy John Surgery.

Under normal circumstances, on an average aging curve, with Tanaka coming off a 4.6 win, we’d expect something like 4 wins this season. That would position him to opt-out and cash-in, but he is a long way from that type of performance so far this season. With a -0.2 fWAR, he’s basically starting from scratch two months into the season, with a recent history of getting shelled.

Now, Tanaka’s strand rate is slightly low, his BABIP is slightly high, and his home run to fly ball rate is twice what we would normally expect, so some bad luck may be involved. But he’s clearly not the starter the Yankees had last year, and he’s doesn’t look like a starter worth paying $20-24 million to over the next three years.

Using FanGraphs’s contract calculator, and assuming (generously) a 3-win season this year and an average aging curve, over the next three years, the market value for Tanaka is just about the guaranteed rate the Yankees owe him through 2020. It certainly would not be worth the risk of opting out, even if he could get a couple additional years on the back end at the ages of 32 and 33.

Assuming a 3-win season this year and a better-than-average aging curve, the market rate is still barely above the guaranteed money through 2020. AND we haven’t even addressed the torn UCL.

Both Steamer and ZiPS project Tanaka for somewhere between 2.0 and 2.5 WAR for the rest of the season, earning him a total of just above two wins for the year. There’s very little chance a team would pay a pitcher $68 million+ over three years for a pitcher with questionable health that could potentially sideline him for a year and a half. Some of that risk could be mitigated by an excellent 2017 season, but a potentially unhealthy 29-year-old coming off a two-win season is hardly worth that risk.

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 in his first nine starts.

Tanaka started a personal best 31 games last season and he’s already nearly ⅓ of the way there this year. Signs are not pointing in the right direction — in his last start, he gave up six earned runs in three innings to the Rays. The Yankees may not have to worry about spurning an opted-out Tanaka, because he’s not likely to be going anywhere at the end of the season. Although they may not have to replace his arm in the rotation, they may end up scrambling to find a replacement for his performance.

Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a contributing Prospect Writer for the Rockies at Purple Row, and a Contributor to The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano.