March 17th Camp Notes: Ellsbury, Bailey, Ryan, A-Rod

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees are playing the Blue Jays later tonight and CC Sabathia will be making his Grapefruit League debut. It will be the big man’s first game action since last May. That makes it a pretty important game by Spring Training standards. The regular game thread will be a long a little closer to first pitch. Until then, here are the day’s notes from camp:

  • Jacoby Ellsbury is day-to-day with a “mild, mild, mild, mild” right abdominal strain according to Joe Girardi, who isn’t too concerned. Ellsbury won’t play tonight or tomorrow. It’s the middle of March. No reason to push anything. Give Ellsbury whatever rest he needs plus an extra day for good measure [Dan Barbarisi]
  • Andrew Bailey is scheduled to make his spring debut tomorrow night. He hasn’t pitched in an actual game — Spring Training or otherwise — since July 2013. Masahiro Tanaka is scheduled to start tomorrow’s game, and others set to make the trip are Brett Gardner, Jacob Lindgren, and the entire projected starting infield. [Mark Feinsand, Brendan Kuty]
  • Bryan Mitchell and Andrew Miller both threw simulated games today. Esmil Rogers, Adam Warren, Nathan Eovaldi, David Carpenter, Ivan Nova, Chase Whitley, Vicente Campos, and Jose DePaula were among the small army of pitchers to throw bullpen sessions. Nova threw curveballs for the first time as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery. [Chad Jennings, Kuty, Pete Caldera]
  • During yesterday’s off-day, Brendan Ryan (mid-back sprain) took ground balls and did all sorts of hitting, including full batting practice. He’ll do the same today and is on track to play in a game later this week. [Feinsand, Jennings]
  • Girardi doesn’t seem to be in a rush to play Alex Rodriguez at first base this spring. “I am not sure, it’s something we will talk about,” Girardi said. “It is something we can do if we want. (Garrett) Jones is more than capable of playing there and we have to get him reps but I might throw (A-Rod) in there one or two games just to see.’’ [George King]

Yankees avoid ugly years of Cliff Lee, but missed out when he could have made a big difference

(Getty)
(Getty)

To date, the second highest traffic day* in RAB history is the day of the Cliff Lee non-trade back in 2010. I remember being off that day, sleeping in an extra hour, and waking up to the news that the Yankees were on the verge of acquiring Lee. Then throughout the day there were constant updates until, finally, no the Yankees were not getting Lee. The Mariners reportedly reneged on an agreement with New York and sent him to the Rangers.

Losing out on Lee as a free agent during the 2010-11 offseason was the first time a generation of Yankees fans experienced the team losing out on a big free agent they so obviously wanted. Like many of you, I was too young to remember the Yankees being spurned by both Greg Maddux and Barry Bonds in the same offseason 25 years ago. (Imagine how that would have gone over nowadays.) Everyone wanted Lee that offseason and the Phillies got him. It was a shock to the system.

Yesterday afternoon, the Phillies announced Lee, now 36, will again attempt to rehab the elbow injury that has been hampering him since last May. “Cliff has now attempted to twice rehabilitate this injury without having surgery. While surgery has now been recommended, it would effectively put an end to his 2015 season as the rehabilitation from the surgery would run through the end of the season. As a result, the Phillies and Cliff have mutually decided to try once again to rehabilitate the injury non-operatively, with the hope that Cliff might be able to return to pitch during the 2015 season,” said the team’s statement.

Lee has spoken to the media in Spring Training and said surgery would potentially end his career, which is why he is trying to avoid it. That makes sense. The Phillies owe him $25M this season, and since he won’t meet the innings pitched requirement to vest his option for next year, the team will pay him a $12.5M buyout after the season. Philadelphia is potentially going to pay Lee $37.5M in 2015 to throw zero pitches. Add in last season, and the Phillies could end up paying him $62.5M to make 13 starts from 2013-14. Ouch.

Needless to say, that’s a contract situation no teams wants a part of right now. The Yankees dodged a bullet by not signing Lee back during the 2010-11 offseason. They have enough bad contracts as it is. Then again, it’s not that simple. The end of Lee’s contract is really ugly, but having him at the front end could have made all the difference in the world. Remember, the Yankees were legitimate contenders from 2010-12, averaging 96 wins per season and going to the ALCS twice, and Lee was a top four pitcher in the world those years.

I find myself thinking about the non-trade in 2010 the most. The Yankees lost to Lee and the Rangers in the ALCS that year, so had the trade gone through, New York would have had Lee on their side instead of facing him. And considering what Lee did against the Rays in the ALDS, Texas probably doesn’t even make the ALCS without him that year. The trade would have changed everything — not automatically for the better, of course, but it’s really hard for me to see a scenario in which the 2010 Yankees are worse off by acquiring Lee.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

In sort of the perfect world scenario, the Yankees trade for Lee in 2010, he falls in love with New York and re-signs after the season, allowing the team to trot him and CC Sabathia out to the mound in 2011-12, when both were in the prime of their careers. Or, on the other hand, maybe re-signing Lee means the Yankees don’t give Sabathia an extension when he threatens to opt-out of his contract after 2011. Either way, the Yankees would have had Lee and Sabathia in 2011, the same year they were forced to start Freddy Garcia and A.J. Burnett in the ALDS against the Tigers.

Of course, trading for Lee means Jesus Montero is not around to go to Seattle for Michael Pineda during the 2011-12 offseason, and that would sort of suck because Big Mike is awesome. At least he is right now. The fact of the matter is Pineda has made 13 starts in three years for the Yankees due to injury. Lee made more starts for the Rangers in 2010 than Pineda has made for the Yankees overall. The Pineda trade has indisputably not worked out as hoped to his point. Based on what we know right now, having totally awesome Cliff Lee with those teams from 2010-12 is much more preferable to having Pineda on whatever the 2015-17 Yankees look like. Those 2010-12 teams were World Series threats. Like, for real.

The Yankees passed on guys like Max Scherzer and Jon Lester this offseason because they’re sick of getting burned by long-term six and seven-year contracts, and I am totally on board with that. Lee falls into the same category — another long-term deal that would have burned the team in the long run. (The Yankees reportedly offered Lee six years, remember. He took five from the Phillies.) The circumstances are very different though. The Yankees were a legitimate contender when Lee was available and he’s a piece who could have put them over the top early on in his contract. Scherzer or Lester this winter would have been an attempt to prop up an otherwise mediocre roster.

There’s a time to go for it and a time to scale back, and right now the Yankees are in a place where scaling back and regrouping make sense. A few years ago, that was the not the case. They were in position to win because their top players — Sabathia, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, Mariano Rivera, etc. — were all still very productive, and taking on another big contract like Lee would have made them even better because man, he was a difference-maker. He wouldn’t have guaranteed another World Championship, but he sure would have helped. So yeah, the Yankees dodged a bullet because they don’t have Lee’s contract on the books right now. They also would have been much better off with him from 2010-12.

* The busiest day in RAB history? December 6th, 2013. That day the Yankees re-signed Hiroki Kuroda, lost both Cano and Granderson to free agency, and signed Carlos Beltran. It’ll be hard to top a day with that much major news.

Recalibrating Expectations for CC Sabathia [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

After four truly excellent seasons (3.22 ERA and 3.28 FIP) from 2009-12, we’ve officially entered the “oh please just let it be over already” phase of CC Sabathia‘s stint in pinstripes. (That makes me sad.) The big man was bad in 2013 (4.78 ERA and 4.10 FIP) and both bad (5.28 ERA and 4.78 FIP) and hurt in 2014. He’s now working his way back from surgery to treat a degenerative knee condition that will require regular maintenance, specifically having fluid drained.

As the old saying goes, the Yankees took the elite years from Sabathia up front and have to live with the ugly years on the back-end of his contract. His days as a front of the rotation arm are almost certainly over and the team is now looking to salvage whatever they can from their erstwhile ace, who is signed through 2016 with a vesting option for 2017 based on the health of his shoulder. Sabathia is scheduled to make his Grapefruit League debut this evening. Now let’s see what the team needs from him this summer.

Yankees Need: Innings. Lots Of Innings.

Sabathia was once the game’s preeminent workhorse, averaging a mind-blowing 213.1 innings per season from 2001-13. I mean, take a second to wrap your head around that number. It’s staggering. And even during his bad starts with the Yankees from 2009-12, Sabathia was still pretty good. Four runs in six innings was a bad Sabathia start. There were no “seven runs in two innings” kind of clunkers those four seasons.

In fact, Sabathia started 129 games from 2009-12, and only four times did he fail to complete five full innings of work. One of those four was the result of a lengthy rain delay at Fenway Park. Sabathia went at least six innings in 116 (!) of those 129 games as well. Heck, even though he was so very ineffective in 2013, he still averaged 6.2 innings per start. He completed five innings in seven of his eight starts last year and six innings in five of the eight.

When he’s taken the ball, Sabathia has routinely pitched deep into the game. That’s not really the issue. The issue is being able to stay healthy enough to start every fifth day from April through September. I think the Yankees would happily live with Sabathia averaging 5.9 innings per start (the AL average in 2014) if it means getting 32 starts out of him. Taking the ball deep into the game would be nice, but the team has the bullpen to compensate if he can’t. Not missing a start is more important.

Sabathia Can: Maybe Throw Innings?

The good news is Sabathia’s arm is healthy. The bad news is we are flying blind with his now three-time surgically repaired right knee. (Two meniscus procedures and the clean out last year.) Sabathia has not pitched since last May and we have no idea how that knee is going to hold up, not within an individual game and definitely not over the course of a full season. This is uncharted territory.

Sabathia has been wearing a brace during his throwing sessions this spring for extra support — from what I understand it is more of a sleeve than some sort of clunky brace — and he will continue to wear it during the season. Basically from now through the end of his career. The knee issue is degenerative and will need regular maintenance. Sabathia’s a total gamer. He’s shown he will pitch through injury over the years. I have no reason to doubt his effort. The knee simply might not be up for 32 starts, however.

Yankees Need: Respectability

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees aren’t stupid. They know Sabathia’s best years are behind him and aren’t counting on him to be the staff ace anymore. They signed Masahiro Tanaka to be the ace last offseason and saw glimpses of Michael Pineda being that type of pitcher last year. (Obviously those two have physical issues of their own, but I digress.) The Yankees would love Sabathia to turn back into an ace but aren’t expecting it at all.

Instead, the Yankees simply need Sabathia to be respectable this year. How about league average? That’s a modest goal. Can Sabathia be league average this year despite playing in a hitter friendly park? I think the Yankees would consider 180 innings of league average pitching — the league average AL starter had a 3.92 ERA and 3.85 FIP last season, for what it’s worth (I miss offense) — a win given the state of Sabathia’s knee. Expectations are pretty low but the need to get some production from the lefty does exist.

Sabathia Can: Maybe Be Respectable?

In terms of plain ol’ run prevention, Sabathia stunk the last two years. He allowed 4.87 earned runs per nine innings pitched in 257 innings from 2013-14 and that’s bad. Very bad. One hundred and thirty six pitchers threw at least 200 innings the last two seasons and only eight have a higher ERA than Sabathia. Bad. Very, very bad.

If you want to squint your eyes and see some positives, they do exist. Even while pitching on that bad knee early last season, Sabathia did post very good strikeout (9.39 K/9 and 23.0 K%), walk (1.96 BB/9 and 4.8 BB%), and ground ball (48.3%) rates. If you strike out a lot of guys, limit walks, and get hitters to beat the ball into the ground, you should fare pretty well, especially now that the Yankees have such a strong infield defense. Hopefully Sabathia can do that stuff again this summer.

On the downside, Sabathia was incredibly homer prone (1.96 HR/9 and 23.3 HR/FB%) last year. That’s almost unsustainably bad, even in tiny Yankee Stadium. Then again, Hit Tracker classified eight of the ten homers Sabathia allowed last season as either “plenty” or “no-doubt,” meaning they were not cheapies, so who knows. Maybe Sabathia’s true talent level at this point of his career is nearly two homers per nine innings with a quarter of his fly balls leaving the yard? I’m not sure anyone is really that bad though. Home runs are hard to hit.

It has now been two full seasons since Sabathia was last even an average big league starter. The prospect of a healthy knee gives us hope he will rebound and be, well, respectable this coming season, but we haven’t even seen him pitch in a Grapefruit League game yet. We have no idea how his location looks, no idea if he slider is moving the way it’s supposed to move, no idea if his changeup is changin’ up. The combination of age, wear-and-tear, and the knee injury make it damn near impossible to project Sabathia’s performance this year. This is a total wait and see situation.

Yankees Need: Leadership

With Derek Jeter retired and Alex Rodriguez persona non grata, Sabathia is the elder statesman in the clubhouse. He’s been with the team longer than Carlos Beltran and has accomplished more in his career than Mark Teixeira. Sabathia is one of those “instant respect” guys as a former Cy Young winner and World Series champ, not to mention his oh so obvious willingness to leave it all out on the field. Players notice that. The Yankees will count on Sabathia to lead the clubhouse this summer and be a mentor to a surprisingly young pitching staff.

Sabathia Can: Be A Leader

Sabathia doesn’t need to be healthy to be a leader. He just needs to be around. Chad Jennings shared this story the other day and I think it’s important:

Tanaka is the best pitcher on this team, but it’s hard to be in the Yankees clubhouse and not see CC Sabathia as the clear ace. Pitchers still look to him for advice. They look to him for leadership. And the big man provides. I have no clue whether he can be a great big league pitcher again. I don’t even know if he can be a solid No. 3. But I don’t think his role in the clubhouse has changed from what it was three years ago. Even veteran guys will gather around near his locker to talk to him about anything and everything.

The Yankees have a very young pitching staff, especially now that Chris Capuano is hurt. (The second oldest pitcher on the projected Opening Day roster is Andrew Miller, who turns 30 in late-May.) Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi are pups and even Tanaka is still relatively young, having turned 26 in November. When these guys need guidance, they’re going to turn to Sabathia. Considering how popular he’s been in the clubhouse since the day he arrived in New York, we know CC will be there to help.

Thoughts following two weeks of Grapefruit League play

This ball wasn't caught (GIF). (Presswire)
This ball was not caught (GIF). (Presswire)

The Yankees had their first off-day of the Grapefruit League schedule yesterday and return to action later tonight, when CC Sabathia makes his spring debut. That’s sort of a big deal. It’s been a long time since the big man pitched in any sort of game situation. Anyway, here are some thoughts on this Tuesday morning.

1. Needless to say, Sabathia’s outing is pretty important, just like Masahiro Tanaka‘s spring debut was important last week. The results don’t really matter, but does he make it through the outing in one piece? Does his stuff and/or command look further compromised following the injury? Sabathia is 34 years old with nearly 3,000 career innings on arm. I’m not expecting any velocity to come back with a healthy knee. I just want to see him do a better job of keeping the ball out of the middle of the plate. Hopefully with a more stable landing leg and improved balance from the additional weight — that sounds weird but it’s something Sabathia has mentioned as a positive — Sabathia can hit the corners and drive the ball down around the knees consistently. If he does that, I think he’ll be effective. Maybe not an ace, but someone the Yankees can run out there every fifth day and have a reasonable chance to win.

2. A few weeks ago I noted Chasen Shreve was the extra guy in the bullpen early in Spring Training, not someone scheduled to pitch specific days, which may have meant he was on the outside of the Opening Day roster looking in. Shreve has since joined the ranks of the “scheduled pitchers” and the Yankees have actually made a point of testing him against right-handed batters. In his last outing, Shreve was sent out to face switch-hitter Pablo Sandoval (pop-up) and righty hitters Mike Napoli (strikeout), Xander Bogaerts (walk), Ryan Hanigan (fly out), Mookie Betts (ground out), and Dustin Pedroia (ground out). That’s about as good a test as you can find for a lefty reliever in mid-March. Shreve has had success against both righties and lefties in the minors but his exposure to MLB hitters is very limited. Seems like the Yankees specifically sent him out there against the Red Sox to see how he handled all those right-handed batters. He did well and that doesn’t mean he’s a lock for the roster now, but it didn’t hurt his chances either.

3. At this point it’s clear Andrew Bailey won’t be a part of the Opening Day roster. He has yet to get into a game — he did throw a simulated game this weekend — and there probably isn’t enough time in Spring Training for him to show he’s ready to face big league hitters. That makes sense. The Yankees have plenty of bullpen options, so they can afford to send Bailey to Triple-A for a few weeks to gauge his actual effectiveness. They don’t have to continue to evaluate him in games that count. If Bailey gets on a regular reliever’s schedule — pitching in back-to-back games, entering in the middle of an inning, that sort of thing — and handles it well, then the Yankees can call him up. There’s no need for him to be on the Opening Day roster at this point. There are too many other quality relievers in the organization to fiddle around with Bailey, trying to see if he can help any. Let him do that in the minors.

Ref Robsnyder. (Presswire)
Ref Robsnyder. (Presswire)

4. Another thing that is clear: Rob Refsnyder was never seriously considered for the second base job. He’s seen basically no time in the field with Didi GregoriusStephen Drew‘s been playing with Gregorius so the two could get comfortable with each other as the double play combination — and he hasn’t gotten a whole lot of premium playing time. He’s the guy coming off the bench with the subs and playing later in games. That’s not how teams treat players they want to see win a job, or at least compete for a job. And you know what? I am 100% cool with this. Refsnyder needs more time in Triple-A to work on his defense — this is painfully obvious from watching him play the last two weeks, right? Routine plays have been not so routine with him this spring — and I’m pretty sure I’ve written that before. He just doesn’t look natural at second base, and that’s not surprising. Refsnyder was an outfielder as recently as 2012, remember. He’ll go to Triple-A and hopefully work on his defense. That’s partially why Drew was brought in — to give Refsnyder more time to work on what is a glaring but potentially correctable flaw.

5. Eighteen months ago, the Rangers had an enviable quartet of starting pitchers in Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Martin Perez, and Matt Harrison. Not a single one of them will be on the Opening Day roster this year. Darvish and Perez will be rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, Holland has been slowed in camp by a shoulder issue, and Harrison is trying to work his way back from a career-threatening back injury. In fact, the entire Rangers organization is a cautionary tale of just how quickly things can go south. Two or three years ago they looked poised to become a perennial powerhouse and World Series contender. Now they’re coming off a 95-loss season with a ton of awful contracts and core players dealing with major injuries. The Yankees haven’t been great by any stretch of the imagination these last two years, but geez, I’d much rather be the Yankees going forward than the Rangers. Who would have said that a year or two ago? At least New York’s disaster contracts are expiring relatively soon.

Monday Night Open Thread

The Yankees had an off-day today and it was a complete off-day. There were no official workouts scheduled at the complex in Tampa or anything like that. That doesn’t mean a few players didn’t show up to get work in, of course. Anyway, there’s no news to pass along from the off-day, so consider this the day’s camp notes. No news is good news, right?

Here is your open thread for the evening. MLB Network will replay the Athletics and Dodgers later tonight and the Nets are playing as well. That’s about it. Talk about whatever here.

Capuano injury, plan for Tanaka could change way Yanks build early-season bullpen

Whitley on the Opening Day roster might not be far-fetched. (Presswire)
Whitley on the Opening Day roster might not be so far-fetched. (Presswire)

Last week the Yankees lost projected fifth starter Chris Capuano for several weeks with a Grade II right quad strain. Capuano is the team’s most replaceable starter but that doesn’t mean the loss is insignificant. Someone else has to fill that rotation spot now and chances are it will be someone who was slated to open the year in the bullpen, either Adam Warren or Esmil Rogers, most likely. The loss will be felt somewhere.

The Yankees have also been discussing using a six-man rotation early in the season — not necessarily a strict six-man rotation, but rather strategically using a sixth starter on occasion to give the other guys rest. That makes sense considering Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda all have some kind of health concern. In fact, the team is planning to use Tanaka specifically every sixth day early in the season, according to Kevin Kernan.

The Yankees have a plan to keep Masahiro Tanaka as healthy as possible, and that means giving him an extra day of rest now and during the season so he pitches every sixth day.

“It’s something we’d like to do,’’ one Yankees official told The Post on Friday of keeping the rotation on a six-day spin.

Tanaka worked on a six-day schedule in Japan until signing with the Yankees last winter, and given his elbow situation, the extra day could be beneficial both short and long-term. April off-days and a strategic sixth starter will help the Yankees accomplish their goal of starting Tanaka every sixth day, though Capuano’s injury complicates things a little bit because it changes the bullpen construction.

Assuming Warren or Rogers replaces Capuano in the rotation — I think it’ll be Warren personally, but there are still three weeks of Spring Training to go — five of the seven bullpen spots are set:

  1. Dellin Betances
  2. Andrew Miller
  3. David Carpenter
  4. Justin Wilson
  5. Warren or Rogers
  6. ?
  7. ?

There are no shortage of candidates for those last two spots. Finding bodies won’t be difficult. The Yankees have the luxury of filling those spots any way they want because of all the available options. And with Capuano hurt and the Yankees wanting to start Tanaka every sixth day, the most practical way to fill both spots may be with long men. At least temporarily.

Baker. (Presswire)
Baker. (Presswire)

The thinking is one of those two long men — it would really be three long men in the bullpen when you include the Warren/Rogers spot — could step in as the sixth starter as needed to spell Tanaka (and the other starters) every so often. That would leave at least one more long man for other days, in case Warren/Rogers or any of the other starters go short. This isn’t rocket science, the more relievers in the bullpen who can throw multiple innings, the better.

Planning to carry multiple long men is one thing, but actually having multiple viable long men is another. The Yankees started last season with three relievers who could have been considered long relievers (Warren, David Phelps, Vidal Nuno), but that was a bit of an outlier. You don’t see many teams break camp with three guys like that. (I thought the Yankees would sent at least one to Triple-A to stay stretched out as the sixth starter, but nope.)

Here are the club’s long man candidates still in big league camp (listed alphabetically), assuming Warren and Rogers will be on the Opening Day roster in some capacity no matter what:

  • Scott Baker: Veteran guy who threw 80.2 generally ineffective innings (5.47 ERA and 4.78 FIP) for the Rangers last year. He’s thrown four innings across a pair of appearances this spring.
  • Kyle Davies: Threw 154.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last year and hasn’t pitched in MLB since 2011. He’s thrown four innings in three appearances during Grapefruit League play.
  • Jose DePaula: DePaula has dealt with numerous injuries in recent years and was limited to 51.1 innings in Triple-A last year. He’s made just one appearance this spring, throwing two innings.
  • Bryan Mitchell: Eleven innings in MLB last year and another 103 in the minors. He threw 145.1 minor league innings back in 2013. Mitchell has thrown four innings in two appearances this spring.
  • Chase Whitley: Made the conversion from bullpen to rotation last year and threw a career high 107 innings, including 75.2 in MLB. He’s thrown seven innings this spring, appearing in three games.

We can group these five guys into three different … well, groups. The Yankees have nothing invested in Baker and Davies long-term. They’re older pitchers trying to hang on and the team will not hesitate to run them into the ground, then designate them for assignment. It sounds rough but that’s baseball. Baker and Davies aren’t stupid, they know where they are at this stage of their careers.

Mitchell is an actual prospect and the Yankees do have reason to protect him with an eye towards the future. Mitchell will turn 24 next month and he’s also the least MLB ready of the bunch despite making his debut last season. He could use some more Triple-A time for fine-tuning. DePaula and Whitley are somewhere in the middle. Not really potential pieces of the long-term puzzle like Mitchell but probably not guys the Yankees would abuse a la Baker and Davies either.

The Yankees don’t have to decide on those final bullpen spots for a few weeks and by then they should have a better idea of Capuano’s timetable. If he’s expected back relatively soon, within the first week or two of the regular season, they could opt to take a short reliever who can be optioned down when Capuano’s healthy to make life easy. If he’ll miss a few weeks and not return until closer May, carrying two long relievers like, say, Baker and Whitley early on could make sense if the Yankees intend to stick to their strategic sixth starter plan.

Masahiro Tanaka And The Scenario No One Bothered To Consider [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the second straight year, Masahiro Tanaka came to Spring Training as an unknown. The circumstances this year are very different though. Last year Tanaka was a newcomer to the Yankees and MLB in general, having been signed as a kinda sorta free agent in the offseason. The Yankees obviously believed in him, hence their $175M commitment, but no one knew what he could do for certain.

This year though, Tanaka came to camp as an unknown because of last season’s elbow injury. He missed almost the entire second half with a partially torn elbow ligament that did not require surgery because the tear was so small. Tanaka showed in the first half he was worth every penny of the team’s investment, he was that dominant, though the elbow injury has cast a cloud over his status this year, at least so far.

Things have gone well for Tanaka in Spring Training to this point. He’s had no issues in workouts — bullpens, live batting practice, simulated games, etc. — and his Grapefruit League debut last week was dominant. He looked like the healthy version of Tanaka we saw early last year. Yet the elbow injury lingers in the back of everyone’s mind — Tanaka says he’s not thinking about it but how could he not? — and it’s uncomfortable. That doesn’t lessen his importance to the team, of course.

Yankees Need: Tanaka To Be An Exception

This goes without saying: the Yankees need Tanaka to stay healthy this season. He is arguably the single most important player on the roster — if he’s not the team’s most important player, then he’s on the very short list of candidates — and not just in terms of contending in 2015, but for the future of the franchise overall. Tanaka is the Yankees’ version of Giancarlo Stanton or Mike Trout or Buster Posey. A significant injury to him changes everything.

Tanaka rehabbed his elbow injury last year and while that only slightly delays the inevitable in most cases, it can be enough to keep him healthy for several years. Adam Wainwright and Ervin Santana are two players who pitched multiple years with partially torn elbow ligaments. Current Yankees non-roster player Scott Baker did as well. He recently told Chad Jennings he hurt his elbow ligament in college but didn’t need surgery until his seventh year in the big leagues.

Still, guys like Baker and Wainwright and Santana are the exception, not the rule. Others like Chad Billingsley, Drew Hutchison, Matt Harvey, Francisco Liriano, Bronson Arroyo, Cory Luebke, and Pat Neshek are recent of examples of pitchers who tried to rehab their damaged ligament only to need surgery a handful of innings later. If Tanaka’s elbow stays intact this year, he will be the exception given the nature of his injury, and that’s what the Yankees need.

Tanaka Can: Say He Followed Doctor’s Orders

It’s important to understand the Yankees and Tanaka are not being reckless. They’re simply following doctor’s orders. When Tanaka suffered his injury last year, he was examined personally by three doctors — Yankees team doctor Chris Ahmad, Mets team doctor David Altchek, and Dodgers team doctor Neal ElAttrache — and his test results were also sent to Dr. James Andrews for review. All four recommended rehab.

Then, before Tanaka returned to the mound late last year, he was again examined and given the okay to pitch. Tanaka also said he underwent an MRI after the season and everything came back clean. He went through the rehab protocol as recommended and the doctors all cleared him to return to action, so that’s what he did. The Yankees and Tanaka did exactly what the experts recommended and that’s what they should have done. Sending him for Tommy John surgery against recommendations would have been the reckless act.

“There’s just no way to say surgery should be your first option,” said Baker to Jennings. “I think the reason people can say that is because of the success of the surgery. As far as sports injuries, aside from the ACL, it’s probably the most successful (surgery) as far as guys getting back to their previous level. So I think that allows (the argument), but does it justify it? No.”

J.J. Cooper recently looked at the success rate of recent Tommy John surgery and found it is actually on the decline. At the Sloan Sports Conference a few weeks ago, Dr. Glenn Fleisig presented research showing only 67% of MLB pitchers who have the procedure make it back for 10+ games. The risk is high — in recent years Luebke, Daniel Hudson, Joel Hanrahan, Jeremy Hefner, and Jonny Venters all needed a second Tommy John surgery before they even finished rehabbing from the first (in Venters’ case, he needed a third while rehabbing from his second) — so Tommy John surgery is something you don’t have until you absolutely need it.

The doctors said Tanaka did not need his elbow rebuilt last summer. They recommended rehab, he rehabbed, and they cleared him to pitch when the rehab was complete. If the elbow gives out at some point this year and he needs Tommy John surgery, then so be it. As long as Tanaka and the Yankees did what the various doctors recommended, they did the right thing.

Yankees Need: An Ace

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees didn’t sink $175M into Tanaka to be a mid-rotation starter. They’re counting on him to be an ace — for years to come too, Tanaka is only 26 remember — and last year he showed he can be that ace. With CC Sabathia fading, Nathan Eovaldi still in the process of figuring things out, and Michael Pineda having not thrown a full season in three years now, Tanaka has to be a front of the rotation stabilizing force for New York. The guy that when the players show up to the park on the days he is scheduled to pitch, they know it’s win day. The guy who stops losing streaks and extends winning streaks. Simply put, the Yankees need Tanaka to be one of the best pitchers in the game.

Tanaka Can: Be An Ace

Based on what we saw in the first half last year, Tanaka absolutely can be that front of the rotation pitcher and the ace the Yankees need. He was a top ten pitcher in the game at the time of his injury, racking up strikeouts (9.39 K/9 and 26.6 K%), limiting walks (1.32 HR/9 and 3.6 BB%), and generally keeping the ball on the ground (45.9%). Because of his splitter, Tanaka was actually more effective against lefties (.280 wOBA) than righties (.302 wOBA) too.

The only flaw in Tanaka’s game is his tendency to give up the home run (0.99 HR/9 and 14.0 HR/FB%), though even that wasn’t all that bad considering his home ballpark (AL average was 0.89 HR/9 and 9.4 HR/FB% in 2014). Twelve of the 15 homers he allowed last year were solo shots because he was so good at limiting base-runners overall. Also, eleven of the 15 homers came off fastballs, which is actually his least effective pitch. Tanaka’s offspeed pitches are so good he can still dominate without an overwhelming fastball.

I also think there’s a mental component to being an ace, and Tanaka certainly showed it last year. He never seems to get rattled on the mound and is always in attack mode. He’s an elite competitor. That’s a big reason why the Yankees loved him so much and felt he was worth the $175M risk. If his elbow holds up, Tanaka is going to be a pretty damn good pitcher. He showed all of his pitches in his brief outing last week and everything looked crisp. Granted, it was 19 total pitches and we need to see more, but right now, I’m comfortable saying Tanaka can be ace-like this summer if the elbow cooperates.

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We — and by we I mean basically everyone, Yankees fans and Yankees haters alike — spent all winter worrying about Tanaka’s elbow and more or less assuming it would blow out at some point this year. We never bothered to consider the alternative scenario. The one where Tanaka is the exception and his elbow does hold up. He’s a difference-maker when healthy, hands down the best pitcher in the AL East and one of the best in all of baseball. It’s far from a given Tanaka will stay healthy, we know that, but it’s not impossible either. He’s passed every test so far in camp, which is way more than many expected.