New York Yankees Editorial: If Masahiro Tanaka stays healthy, Yankees could be in AL East drivers seat


When the New York Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155-million contract before the 2014 season, they envisioned more outings like the one he had Wednesday afternoon in Seattle which saw him need only 78 pitches to get through seven innings of three-hit, one-run ball, while also racking up nine strikeouts.

Tanaka, who famously declined Tommy John surgery almost a year ago, looked the best he has all season, leading the Yankees to a sweep-completing victory.  The most encouraging sign, on a day filled with them, was Tanaka’s fastball, reaching 96.5 MPH on his final pitch, and averaging 92.5 MPH on the day.

Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Zunino felt that Tanaka looked comparable to when he last faced him nearly a year earlier, and before Tanaka’s injury:

"He had such good command of all four of his pitches.  He threw his splitter to both righties and lefties, and he threw his slider on both sides to right-handers.  Very few guys have enough trust in themselves to throw front-door sliders to righties on two strikes."

Tanaka was so dominant, according to Zunino, that after seeing him strike out Nelson Cruz with a second inning slider, he told himself to look for the pitch with two strikes.  That didn’t change his fate though, as he struck out staring at a slider one inning later.

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The right arm of Tanaka, who struggled in his last rehab assignment allowing three runs in three innings, is pivotal to the Yankees playoff hopes.  With Michael Pineda finally fulfilling his potential, emerging as a legitimate ace and All-Star candidate, a healthy Tanaka could give the Yankees one of the best 1-2 punches in baseball.

While the team already possesses one of the best bullpens in the sport, having Tanaka healthy makes the bullpen even more dangerous.  In the early portion of the season, the bullpen has already thrown a lot of innings so getting an innings-eater like Tanaka could provide rest and limit the wear and tear on some of the arms.

Although the rotation has been shaky all season, Tanaka’s return couldn’t have come a better time.  Not only has Pineda been great, but Nathan Eovaldi and Adam Warren have looked strong lately.  CC Sabathia hasn’t been good, but of late, he hasn’t been as awful as in the early going.

Sabathia could end up the odd man out if the Yankees choose not to use a six-man rotation when Ivan Nova returns from Tommy John surgery, though returning Warren to a seventh-inning role before Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller could be useful considering the Yankees need right-handed relief help.

The Yankees also have Luis Severino and Bryan Mitchell waiting in the wings at Triple-A.  Having Tanaka healthy could eliminate a need to make a trade for a starter, and allow the Yankees to focus on upgrading a shaky middle infield.

Less than a week ago, the Yankees starting rotation was a major question mark.  With Tanaka back, and Nova beginning his rehab assignment Monday, it looks like soon it could become a major strong suit of this team.  If this happens, the Yankees could become clear favorites in a wide-open AL East.

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