Tanaka Goes Down and Panic Ensues: What’s Next for the Yankees?
Last week I wrote about a conversation I had with a die-hard Orioles fan, how every year all he hopes for is a team that gives him a reason to watch every day, and how I was beginning to echo his sentiments as a fan of a decidedly mediocre Yankee team.
On Wednesday, many Yankee fans undoubtedly felt they lost that reason to watch. In this nightmarish season for the starting rotation, our worst fear has been realized: Masahiro Tanaka landed on the disabled list.
The week has gone from bad to worse for the Yankees, at least on the injured pitcher front. Last Thursday they got word that CC Sabathia, who was originally intended to be their number one starter, would likely need surgery on his right knee and miss the rest of the season. A day later the Oakland A’s snatched up Jeff Samardijza and Jason Hammel in a trade with the Cubs, ensuring that the Yankees wouldn’t replace their fallen ace with either of the two, as some had speculated.
Yes, the news about Sabathia was devastating—it’s unclear how the surgery will affect the rest of his career–but not exactly surprising. Since his trip to the DL on May 11 he had been progressing slowly and carefully, but an MRI last week showed the swelling hadn’t gone down much and he was shut down immediately. Sabathia joined teammate Ivan Nova as the second Yankee starter to have season-ending surgery. (Also unsurprising is the injury-prone Michael Pineda’s extended stay on the DL for a back muscle strain. It’s possible he may return in August, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.)
Yankee fans were hoping the biggest problem they’d have this week regarding Tanaka would be complaining if he didn’t get to start the All-Star Game. (All-Star Tanaka Tuesday? Indeed.) But on Wednesday the Yankees sent him back to New York for an MRI, and it confirmed that Tanaka was suffering from inflammation in his right elbow. The news about Tanaka, who is 12-4 this season, was a shock to Yankee fans, even though he was coming off his worst outing of the season (5 runs on 10 hits to the Twins on Tuesday).
Now we’re left to speculate: Is the Tanaka injury a result of Joe Girardi relying on him too much to go that extra inning or two, and taking advantage of the de facto ace’s starts to preserve the bullpen? The Japanese right-hander was previously used to pitching only once a week; in contrast, several of Tanaka’s starts this season have come on only four days’ rest.
I’ve never been an advocate of babying pitchers, and I’m a big believer in pushing the guys with the huge contracts to go the extra mile. But there were several times this year when I was surprised to see Tanaka sent out for the next inning. If a pitcher is cruising along throwing a two-hit shutout, by all means— have him go for the complete game. But if a guy doesn’t have his best stuff, and every inning he’s narrowly escaping jams and is visibly shaky on the mound, is sending him out in the eighth a good idea in a close game? How far is too far to push your ace if you want him to remain your ace for years to come? Sabathia was constantly pushed over the last few seasons, and look what happened to him.
So where do the Yankees go from here? They’ve got Hiroki Kuroda and a bunch of replacements flanking him in the rotation. As amazing as it is that the 39-year-old Kuroda is the only original starter who has managed to stay off the DL, he hasn’t exactly been lights out for the Yankees. He’s 6-6 with a 4.20 ERA, and his numbers really are a true picture of what you’re going to get when he’s on the mound: a cornucopia of hits and a clump of runs at some point, with pretty much a 50-50 shot of winning the game. David Phelps has proved himself to be a fairly reliable starter, but most people thought he’d be the number five, if anything, not the number two.
The rest of the spots at this point will, for now, be filled by Chase Whitley, Shane Greene, and newcomer Brandon McCarthy, whom the Yankees acquired last week by trading Vidal Nuno to the Diamondbacks. It would behoove Brian Cashman to consider making another trade for a starter before the deadline, but for whom?
Tanaka aside, perhaps the Yankees’ biggest weapon this season has been the mediocrity of the rest of the division. In the last 24 hours there have been suggestions that news of Tanaka’s injury is the Yankees’ sign to throw in the towel for 2014 and focus on cultivating their farm system for the years to follow. The idea is ludicrous. Why would a team only three games out of first place throw the rest of the season down the drain? At this point, it’s impossible to tell how much time Tanaka will miss; hopefully he will be back quickly.
It does seem like we have been using the word “hopefully” quite a bit this season. Though many feel like they have lost their reason to hope and watch, the Yankees—and Cashman–need to take this opportunity to show the rest of the league that they refuse to become irrelevant.
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