Poll: Masahiro Tanaka’s opt-out clause

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

At some point in the next ten days, Masahiro Tanaka and his agent will have to make a decision about his opt-out clause. The decision is due three days after the end of the World Series, which means it could come as soon as next Tuesday (if there’s a sweep) or as late as next Saturday (if it goes seven games). So far Tanaka has ducked all questions about the opt-out.

“I haven’t had a chance to think about my contract,” said Tanaka through his interpreter following the ALCS Game Seven loss the other day. “From a player’s standpoint, you don’t truly understand how you are perceived by other teams. The season really was a grind and a fight throughout the season. I can say I didn’t step away from it … I don’t know how it is going to work out.”

Over the last four years the perception of the opt-out decision has changed dramatically. When Tanaka hurt his elbow in 2014, there was no way he’d opt-out. When he earned Cy Young votes last year, he was definitely going to opt-out. When he couldn’t stop giving up homers in the first half this year, he wasn’t going to opt-out. Then when he dominated in the postseason, okay, yeah, he’s opting out.

Fans and analysts tend to look at this stuff too closely. On a day-to-day basis, almost. In reality, Tanaka and his agent are going to take a step back, examine the market for a free agent starting pitcher, and determine whether walking away from three years and $67M makes sense. One bad start in May or one great start in October won’t have a major impact on the decision. This is a big picture decision. Let’s break it down.

The Case For Not Opting Out

This is the easy one, so we’ll start here. Despite his postseason exploits, Tanaka did not pitch well during the 2017 regular season. Fifty-eight pitchers threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title this season. Here are Tanaka’s ranks:

  • ERA: 4.74 (50th)
  • FIP: 4.34 (36th)
  • fWAR: +2.7 (33rd)
  • bWAR: +1.0 (51st)

Not good! Furthermore, Tanaka’s elbow is widely regarded as a ticking time bomb. He had the partial ligament tear back in 2014, and while the elbow hasn’t given him any problems since, most expect him to have Tommy John surgery at some point. Adam Wainwright pitched for five years with a partial tear before the ligament gave out. Tanaka just completed year three. Tanaka has also had some other nagging injury issues in recent years.

The market for a starting pitcher with a known elbow problem who was mediocre to bad overall during the 2017 regular season might not be so robust. Tanaka is a boom or bust player at this point, and there’s a lot of bust potential. Even if the elbow stays intact, he showed this year he could get blasted anyway. Passing on the opt-out and taking the $67M guaranteed would be a safe bet.

The Case For Opting Out

Moreso than any other position, quality starting pitchers rarely have trouble getting paid. Jeff Samardzija led the league in hits, earned runs, and home runs allowed a few years ago, yet he still signed a five-year contract worth $90M after the season. Ian Kennedy inked a five-year deal worth $70M two offseasons ago, after he’d thrown 759 innings with a 4.19 ERA (89 ERA+) and a 4.06 FIP over the previous four seasons.

(Abbie Parr/Getty)
(Abbie Parr/Getty)

Several things make Tanaka desirable despite his poor 2017 regular season and the lingering elbow concerns. One, he has shown he can pitch at a very high level. He did it all of last season and he did it for much of the second half this season, plus again in the postseason, under the spotlight in New York. I would be careful not to overvalue those three postseason starts, but, if nothing else, they were a reminder of what he’s capable of. The ability to dominate still exists.

Two, Tanaka is only 29. He’s actually only 28. His 29th birthday is one week from today. Tanaka is still in what should be the prime of his career. You wouldn’t be signing a guy over 30 who figures to begin succumbing to age-related decline fairly soon. And three, the free agent pitching class isn’t great. Yu Darvish, who had Tommy John surgery two years ago and is now 31, is the headliner. Soon-to-be 32-year-old Jake Arrieta is next, and his command has been deteriorating for two years now.

Should he opt-out, Tanaka likely sits somewhere behind Darvish and Arrieta in the free agent pecking order, and ahead of guys like Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, and Jason Vargas. All three of those dudes are less than two years removed from Tommy John surgery, like Darvish. You can nitpick all these guys the same way you can nitpick Tanaka and say he don’t deserve a big contract.

At the end of the day, we’re talking about a soon-to-be 29-year-old pitcher who owns a 3.56 ERA (118 ERA+) and a 3.75 FIP in 668.1 big league innings, all with the Yankees in the hitter friendly AL East, and has shown he won’t wilt under the bright lights in the postseason. That is a mighty valuable commodity. No, Tanaka might not match the $22.3M average annual value of his current contract, but he figures to top the $67M total guarantee on the open market.

* * *

There is, potentially, a third option here. Tanaka could leverage the opt-out into a contract extension with the Yankees. That is exactly what CC Sabathia did a few years ago. I’m inclined to think the Yankees wouldn’t bite and would call Tanaka’s bluff and let him opt-out in that case, though an extension is worth considering. The Yankees need pitching and Tanaka has shown he can be damn good and thrive in New York. That’s not nothing.

The plan to get under the $197M luxury tax threshold looms, so perhaps there’s a scenario in which the Yankees sign Tanaka to an extension and lower the average annual value (and thus luxury tax hit) of his contract. If the Yankees were to tack on, say, two years and $33M to his current contract, that’s essentially a five-year extension worth $100M, with a $20M luxury tax hit, saving some payroll space. Maybe an extra two years and $27M would be enough to convince Tanaka to stay? Or two years and $23M? It’s worth asking.

At this point, we have all the information. We know how Tanaka pitched this year, how he pitched in the postseason, and how he pitched the last four years. We know his injury history — well, we know what the Yankees have elected to tell us about his injury history — and we know where the Yankees are as a team. They’re ready to win now. They almost won this year! Re-signing Tanaka is a win-now move. Okay, time for a poll.

Will Tanaka opt-out?
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Fan Confidence Poll: October 23rd, 2017

Regular Season Record: 91-71 (858 RS, 660 RA, 100-62 pythag. record), second in ALE
Postseason Record: 7-6 (51 RS, 42 RA), won AL WC Game, won ALDS, lost ALCS

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the Features tab in nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
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Fan Confidence Poll: October 16th, 2017

Regular Season Record: 91-71 (858 RS, 660 RA, 100-62 pythag. record), second in ALE
Postseason Record: 4-4 (31 RS, 26 RA), won AL WC Game, won ALDS, down 0-2 in ALCS
Opponents This Week: ALCS Game Three vs. Astros (Mon.), ALCS Game Four vs. Astros (Tues.), ALCS Game Five vs. Astros (Weds. if necessary), ALCS Game Six @ Astros (Fri. if necessary), ALCS Game Seven @ Astros (Sat. if necessary)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the Features tab in nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
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Fan Confidence Poll: October 9th, 2017

Regular Season Record: 91-71 (858 RS, 660 RA, 100-62 pythag. record), second in ALE
Postseason Record: 2-2 (17 RS, 17 RA), won AL WC Game, down 1-2 in ALDS
Opponents This Week: ALDS Game Four vs. Indians (Mon.), Tues. OFF, ALDS Game Five @ Indians (Weds. if necessary)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the Features tab in nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
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Fan Confidence Poll: October 2nd, 2017

Record Last Week: 5-2 (36 RS, 17 RA)
Season Record: 91-71 (858 RS, 660 RA, 100-62 pythag. record)
Opponents This Week: Monday OFF, Tuesday vs. Twins (AL Wild Card Game)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
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Poll: The Wild Card Game pitching plan

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

In all likelihood the Yankees will host the Twins in the 2017 AL Wild Card Game next Tuesday. The Yankees are still alive in the AL East and the Angels are still alive in the wildcard race, sure, but everything is pointing toward Yankees vs. Twins at Yankee Stadium next week. It would be an upset if the Wild Card Game featured a different matchup.

Tonight Luis Severino will make his final regular season start in preparation for that Wild Card Game. The Yankees haven’t officially announced him as the starter yet — he could start a potential Game 163 should the Yankees and Red Sox tie for the division title — but again, everything points in that direction. Severino will start the Wild Card Game with Sonny Gray, tomorrow’s starter, the backup plan.

Severino has of course been brilliant this season, throwing 187.1 innings with a 3.03 ERA (3.08 FIP). His 29.0% strikeout rate and 4.42 K/BB ratio are both eighth best among the 57 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. Severino is going to finish in the top five of the AL Cy Young voting. He might even finish third behind Corey Kluber and Chris Sale (in whatever order). He’s been outstanding all year.

In the winner-take-all Wild Card Game, of course you want your best starter on the mound, and when you have someone as good as Severino, it’s an easy call. With all due to respect to Gray and Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees are absolutely right to give the ball to Severino next Tuesday. There is, however, another line of thinking in the Wild Card Game. Instead of using a starter, just use relievers. Make it a bullpen game.

Dave Cameron first championed the idea back in 2012, when the Wild Card Game first became a thing, and since then more and more folks have mentioned it as a viable Wild Card Game plan. A few days ago Brian Kenny did a whole MLB Network segment on the Yankees going with a bullpen game in the Wild Card Game next week.

The idea, if you didn’t watch the video, is that relievers in short bursts are generally more effective than starters going through the lineup multiple times. The Yankees are loaded with power bullpen arms. Tommy Kahnle has been outrageously good all season and especially the last few weeks. He’s finally settled into a nice groove in pinstripes and is what, the fourth best reliever in the bullpen? Maybe the fifth best?

Come the Wild Card Game, Joe Girardi is going to be itching to go to the bullpen, especially if the Yankees take a lead early in the game. The Yankees are built to smother teams in the late innings with all those power relievers. So, rather than start Severino and hope he pitches well, why not just go straight to that bullpen? That’s the idea. Here’s what a bullpen game could look like for the Yankees:

  • First Inning: Chad Green
  • Second Inning: Green
  • Third Inning: Green or Dellin Betances if Green’s pitch count is elevated
  • Fourth Inning: Betances
  • Fifth Inning: Betances or Kahnle
  • Sixth Inning: Kahnle or David Robertson
  • Seventh Inning: Robertson
  • Eighth Inning: Robertson or Aroldis Chapman
  • Ninth Inning: Chapman

That would still leave a hopefully healthy Adam Warren in reserve. And, if the game goes to extra innings, the Yankees could always turn to Severino then. They’d let their top bullpen arms, all those strikeout heavy relievers, air it out for an inning or two in the must-win game. Then, if that works, Severino is available for Game One of the ALDS and he could potentially start two games that series rather than one.

It sounds like a wonderful and amazing plan that would increase New York’s chances of winning that Wild Card Game. It also sounds — to me at least — like one of those things that is great on paper but not quite as easy to put into practice. The more relievers you use, the more likely it is you run into someone who doesn’t have it working that day. And what happens when you ask two or three relievers to go two innings when they’re not used to doing it? What happens when you break their routine and ask them to warm up a few innings earlier than usual?

Severino, meanwhile, is really freaking good! It’s not like the Yankees are limping into the postseason and will have to start Jaret Wright in an elimination game. They clinched early and Severino has been one of the three best starters in the AL all season, and they were able to line him up for that game. That’s what every team wants to do going into the Wild Card Game, right? Line up your best starter and have the bullpen ready to go at the first sign of trouble. The Giants did it with Madison Bumgarner in 2014 and 2016, the Astros did it with Dallas Keuchel in 2015, and the Cubs did it with Jake Arrieta in 2015. Pretty solid plan, handing the ball to an ace.

For what it’s worth, Joe Girardi told Bryan Hoch he is not a fan of the bullpen game idea in the Wild Card Game. The Yankees are one of the most statistically inclined and forward-thinking teams in baseball. I’m certain they’ve at least entertained the idea of a bullpen game. I mean, how could you not at least kick the idea around when you have this bullpen? Like I said, Girardi is going to be itching to turn the game over to his bullpen. Green is going to be warming up at the first sign of trouble. I know it, you know it, Girardi knows it, everyone knows it.

No matter what you or I think, the Yankees are going to start Severino in the Wild Card Game, not roll with a bullpen game. I don’t think we’ll see any team go with the bullpen game idea anytime soon, to be honest. This hypothetical scenario is begging for a poll, however, so let’s get to it.

What should the Yankees do in the Wild Card Game?
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Fan Confidence Poll: September 25th, 2017

Record Last Week: 4-2 (29 RS, 24 RA)
Season Record: 86-69 (822 RS, 643 RA, 95-60 pythag. record) 5.0 GB in ALE
Opponents This Week: vs. Royals (one game, Mon.), vs. Rays (three games, Tues. to Thurs.), vs. Blue Jays (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the Features tab in the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
View Results