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Will Yankees’ starter Masahiro Tanaka remain in pinstripes?

This offseason Masahiro Tanaka gets his first taste of a traditional free agency after being posted from the NPB in 2013. 

Division Series - Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees - Game Three Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The product of MLB and Japan’s Nippon League’s posting system, Masahiro Tanaka has played in the Bronx the entirety of his MLB career. Having been courted by several teams during the posting process, Tanaka ended up in New York, after being wined-and-dined, ultimately on a seven-year, $155 million contract.

The last seven years has been a mixed bag for both Tanaka and the Yankees. Perennial contenders, Tanaka never emerged as a ‘true ace’ who could carry the team akin to a Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, or Madison Bumgarner. New York never won an American League pennant in Tanaka’s seven-year tenure, and they missed the playoffs entirely twice

Tanaka was a perfectly adequate pitcher during his time in New York, but never emerged as a stop-gap in the Yankees’ rotation. Over the course of seven years, Tanaka amassed 17.6 bWAR, about 2.8 wins per season, with the shortened 2020 being right in-line with that 162-game average.

He never led the league in any category, never earned much Cy Young consideration (his only votes got him seventh place in 2016), and he wasn’t exactly great in the postseason, where he gave up 20 runs in 54 innings (a pedestrian 3.33 ERA and a 3.50 RA9).

Despite the downsides, it would be unfair to argue that the Yankees didn’t get decent value out of the $155 million deal. At an approximate free agent cost of $8 million per win, there’s some decent surplus value based on the contract that Cashman inked with Tanaka.

The Yankees however are a team that demands excellence, and while Tanaka has been...fine, he’s hardly been what they would have hoped out of an internationally hyped starter.

During his tenure, the Yankees never had that true ‘ace’ and workhorse that could lead them to a pennant or World Series Championship. That’s never who Tanaka was, and it’s not what he’s going to be going into 2021 and beyond.

At this point, Tanaka is a 32-year-old mid-rotation starter who will be perfectly suitable for a contender without any illusions that he’s going to be a major difference maker on the roster. His ~21 percent strikeout rate and ~5 percent walk rate have been consistent through his MLB career, but it’s the propensity to give up the longball that’s been one of his challenges. Since joining the league in 2014, only Rick Porcello and Julio Teheran have given up more home runs than Tanaka.

Thus far in his MLB career, Tanaka has been fairly durable. There have been injured list stints, but overall, he’s generally good for 155-190 innings per year. It will be interesting to see how his arm holds up as it’s documented that his former Japanese team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles overworked him, including a 160 pitch complete game in his final appearance in NPB.

We’re not really in the business of prognosticating here, but it makes a lot of sense for the Yankees to resign Tanaka. They know exactly what they’re getting both from a statistical and personality standpoint. Tanaka is comfortable with the city, the team, and the expectations, and compared to the other starters highlighting this year’s free agent class, New York could do a lot worse.


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