If the Yankees are unwilling to extend Tanaka, they have to put him on the trade market right now

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Five years ago the Yankees played the entire summer knowing their best starting pitcher could opt-out of his contract and leave as a free agent after the season. This coming season, they’re going to do the exact same thing. Masahiro Tanaka‘s opt-out clause is going to loom over the 2017 season the same way CC Sabathia‘s loomed over the 2012 season.

The circumstances are different yet similar. The 2012 Yankees were expected to contend, and sure enough they won 95 games and went to the ALCS. The 2017 Yankees are kinda sorta in a rebuild, but they’re still trying to win, so much so that they spent $13M on a designated hitter and a heck of a lot more on a closer this offseason. The 2012 and 2017 outlooks may be different, but ultimately, the Yankees are still fancying themselves contenders.

A few weeks ago I wrote the Yankees should explore an extension with Tanaka this offseason, and that remains my preference. Yeah, I know, the elbow!!!, blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda, but Tanaka is several years younger now than Sabathia was when he signed his extension, and I think there’s a pretty good chance Tanaka will age better than Sabathia given their body types and pitching styles. It’s in the post. Go ready it.

Anyway, earlier this week Brian Cashman confirmed that no, the Yankees have not discussed exploring a contract extension with Tanaka this offseason. They haven’t even discussed it internally, nevermind approach Tanaka’s representatives about a deal. Mike Mazzeo has the quote:

“We have a significant contract with Masahiro Tanaka,” Cashman said Tuesday night at the opening of Orangetheory Fitness in Manhattan. “Hopefully he has a great year, and then he’ll have a decision to make. If he doesn’t, then he won’t. I think he pitched like a Cy Young award candidate last year, and I certainly hope he does so again this year. But at this point we’ve had no discussions internally to pursue any kind of extension.”

It doesn’t surprise me at all the Yankees have yet to discuss extending their staff ace. That’s not really their style. The only three players they’ve extended before free agency over the last 10-15 years are Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner, and Sabathia, and Sabathia was literally minutes from opting out when he agreed to his extension. The Yankees waited until the last possible moment.

Assuming the Yankees don’t reverse course and sign Tanaka to an extension, I see this playing out one of four ways:

  1. Tanaka pitches well and doesn’t opt-out. (Nope.)
  2. Tanaka pitches poorly or gets hurt and still opts out. (Also nope.)
  3. Tanaka pitches well and opts out.
  4. Tanaka pitches poorly or gets hurt and doesn’t opt-out.

I would be very surprised if Tanaka pitches poorly while being perfectly healthy this coming season. He’s never not been really good when actually on the mound. Sure, the elbow might finally give or whatever, but as long as he’s on the bump, history tells us he’ll be effective. Health is a bigger variable than performance for me. As long as he stays healthy, he’s opting out.

Under no circumstances can the Yankees go into the upcoming season planning to let Tanaka walk as a free agent next winter. If they try to re-sign him and fail because another team blows their offer out of the water, so be it. But if the plan is to play out the season with Tanaka, then let him walk because the elbow is just too much of a red flag, it would be complete madness. It would be so insane that I’m confident it won’t happen.

Remember, under the terms of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Yankees can only receive a draft pick after after the fourth round (after the fourth round!) for Tanaka or any other qualified free agent next offseason. You can’t let Tanaka go for that. That pick has so little value. If the Yankees are wary about an extension — remember, they know Tanaka and his elbow better than anyone — then they have to be willing to trade him.

Think about it. The free agent class is so very weak right now. It was weak at the start of the free agency, and now that Rich Hill and Ivan Nova are off the board, the pickin’s are slim. Jose Quintana is available and the asking price is high, which is scaring away some teams. Tanaka is not as valuable as Quintana because of his contract status and injury history, but the Yankees could still get a significant piece or two for him. No doubt.

The Astros stand out to me as the perfect trade partner. Houston has gone all-in this offseason and they’re said to be in the mix for Quintana. They just don’t want to give up the prospects Chicago is seeking. I get it. Tanaka would satisfy their need for a frontline starter and do so at a lower price, plus they have Brian McCann, the guy who has caught Tanaka the last three years. The learning curve would be much smaller. Those two know each other.

Either way, the sooner the Yankees make a decision about Tanaka’s future, the better. Are they going to extend him? Great, then get down to business right now and try to avoid waiting until Tanaka has all the leverage like Sabathia did following his 2012 season. Are they unwilling to extend him? That’s fine too, as long as the Yankees put him on the trade market right now. Waiting until the deadline is risky.

Tuesday Notes: Tanaka, WBC, London, Stottlemyre, ESPN

(Koji Watanabe/Getty)
Tanaka at the 2013 WBC. (Koji Watanabe/Getty)

We are right smack in the middle of the slowest time of the offseason. The baseball world is essentially on hold during the holidays, before the bargain shopping begins in January. Here are some bits of news to check out in the meantime.

Tanaka not on partial WBC roster

Team Japan has announced the first 19 players of their 28-man roster for the 2017 World Baseball Classic, reports Jason Coskrey, and Masahiro Tanaka is not among those 19 players. Outfielder Nori Aoki is the only MLB player on the roster. Two-way star Shohei Otani is the headliner, obviously. Final rosters are due sometime in January, which ain’t so far away anymore.

“Regarding MLB players, we are not going to announce where we are (in talks) and it’s all going to be announced when we actually announce (the final roster),” said Japan baseball secretary general Atsushi Ihara to Coskrey. “We don’t really have the timetable, but manager (Hiroki) Kokubo is saying that he wants to set it early.”

Tanaka, who pitched in both the 2009 and 2013 WBCs, has said he wants to pitch in the 2017 edition. The Yankees can’t stop their ace from participating. Brian Cashman confirmed it. Team Japan did not take MLB players in the last WBC, not even Ichiro, but Ihara’s comments and the fact Aoki is the on the roster suggests they’ll look to take a few this time around. We’ll see what happens with Tanaka.

Yankees, Red Sox could be headed to London

According to Michael Silverman, the Yankees and Red Sox could be headed to London to play a series next season. Hal Steinbrenner and Red Sox owner John Henry have been discussing the possibility for several years now. MLB has been looking to grow the game globally and the new Collective Bargaining Agreement includes provisions to play games outside the country.

“The Yankees have been at the forefront of suggesting that we bring the great game of baseball to London,” said Yankees president Randy Levine to Silverman. “There have been some meaningful attempts to do so, and we are hopeful and confident that we can play there soon. Playing the Red Sox in London would be a special and unique event.”

It’s no surprise the Yankees and Red Sox may end up playing overseas. They’re still baseball’s premier rivalry and will generate the most buzz. There are a ton of logistical issues to work out though. There’s the travel, first and foremost, and also the issue of gate receipts. One of the two teams is going to lose a handful of home games and associated revenue. Still, the Yankees playing in London would be pretty damn cool.

Stottlemyre doing better after health scare

Mel Stottlemyre, former Yankees pitcher and pitching coach, is doing better following a health scare last week, his wife Jean told John Harper. Mel’s son Todd wrote on Facebook his father was “in the hospital fighting for his life” last Friday. Stottlemyre has been fighting multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer, since 2000.

“He’s doing much better. We saw a big turnaround with Mel over the last 24 hours. He’s not in a life-threatening situation right now,” said Jean Stottlemyre to Harper. “It’s not the cancer. It was that he got sick from the chemo medicine. He was given antibiotics to fight infection and he’s responded well.”

Stottlemyre, who turned 75 last month, spent his entire playing career with the Yankees from 1964-74. Those were the “dark years” of the franchise, so Mel never did win a World Series as a player. He won his first ring as Mets pitching coach in 1986, and he added four titles as Yankees pitching coach from 1996-2005. Last year the Yankees surprised Stottlemyre with a plaque in Monument Park. It was one of the best moments of the season.

It was unclear whether Stottlemyre’s health would even allow him to make the trip from his home in Washington to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers’ Day last year. I’m glad to hear he’s doing well after that health scare last week. He’s been fighting cancer for close to two decades now, and he’s kicking its butt even at age 75. Go Mel.

Yankees to play four times on ESPN

A few days ago ESPN released their Sunday Night Baseball schedule for most of the first half, and, not surprisingly, the Yankees are featured more than a few times. They’re still a great draw. Here’s the schedule and here are the Sunday night broadcasts that will feature the Yankees:

  • April 16th: Cardinals at Yankees
  • May 7th: Yankees at Cubs
  • May 14th: Astros at Yankees
  • July 16th: Yankees at Red Sox

That May 14th game is the night the Yankees are retiring Derek Jeter’s number, though I’m not sure whether ESPN will show the ceremony. Probably not. YES will air the entire thing, I’m sure. As a reminder, the Yankees are going to play the very first game of 2017 on ESPN. They begin the season at 1pm ET on Sunday, April 2nd, on the road against the Rays. The next game that day begins at 4pm ET.

This offseason is the best time for the Yankees to explore an extension with Masahiro Tanaka

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

By any measure, Masahiro Tanaka is not just the best starting pitcher on the Yankees, he’s one of the best starting pitchers in all of MLB. He’s New York’s best starter since CC Sabathia was in his prime, and their best right-handed starter since Mike Mussina was in his prime more than a decade ago. Tanaka turned 28 last month and is very much in what should be the best years of his career.

Looming next offseason is Tanaka’s opt-out clause, which will allow him to forego the final three years and $67M left on his contract and test free agency. Given the market for pitching these days, opting out is a certainty as long as Tanaka is healthy. Jeff Samardzija led the league in hits, earned runs, and home runs allowed back in 2015 and still landed a five-year deal worth $90M. I mean, come on.

A few years ago the Yankees dealt with Sabathia’s opt-out clause, which he leveraged into a contract extension. They added one guaranteed year to his original deal, plus a vesting option. The 2017 season is the vesting option year. Sabathia’s extension has not worked out as hoped, but that doesn’t mean you walk away from every pitcher with an opt-out. You have to consider these things on a case-by-case basis.

Signing Tanaka — again: one of the very best pitchers in all of baseball — to an extension has to be a consideration for the Yankees this offseason, before the opt-out comes into play. And before we go any further, let’s list some key differences between Tanaka now and Sabathia at the time of his opt-out:

  1. Age: Tanaka just turned 28 and will pitch all of next season at that age. Sabathia was 31 when he signed his extension and he turned 32 during the first season of the deal. Heck, Sabathia was as old as Tanaka is right now when he originally signed with the Yankees during the 2008-09 offseason. Pretty big difference in age, eh?
  2. Body Type: I love Sabathia, but the dude is 6-foot-7 and somewhere around 300 lbs., and that massive frame has taken its toll on his right (landing) knee. Not too many pitchers that size have pitched as deep into their 30s as Sabathia. He’s an outlier. Tanaka is far from it. We don’t have to bank on Tanaka being an outlier with his frame, because baseball history is littered with pitchers who stand 6-foot-3 and 215 lbs.
  3. Pitching Style: Sabathia at his peak was a pure power pitcher who dominated with a mid-90s fastball and a nasty slider. Tanaka is more of an artist. He doesn’t operate with overpowering velocity. He outsmarts hitters by commanding an array of offspeed pitches. That command and feel for pitching will ostensibly allow Tanaka to age gracefully, a la Andy Pettitte.

But Mike, what about the elbow? Ah yes, the elbow. The elbow that hangs over every pitch Tanaka throws and every blog post written about him. Tanaka suffered a partially torn elbow ligament in 2014, successfully rehabbed the injury, and has pitched to a 3.26 ERA (3.72 FIP) in 353.2 innings since. Turns out the doctors knew what they were talking about. Tanaka didn’t need Tommy John surgery. Weird.

Anyway, the fact Tanaka’s elbow has held up in the two years since the injury doesn’t mean the Yankees can simply ignore it when evaluating his long-term future. Health should play a pretty huge role in determining whether to sign a pitcher long-term. Three quick thoughts on the elbow:

1. The Yankees know Tanaka better than anyone. All we know about Tanaka’s elbow is what the Yankees have chosen to tell us. They know his health and the status of the elbow ligament better than anyone. We could sit here and say extending a pitcher with a bum elbow would be crazy, but the Yankees and their doctors are looking over the medicals, and they may feel comfortable long-term. Truth be told, stick any 28-year-old pitcher in an MRI tube and you’ll find something scary, including partial ligament tears. Many pitchers have them and don’t even know it because they’re asymptomatic.

2. There’s some give and take here. Would the Yankees be taking a risk signing Tanaka to an extension because of the elbow? Of course. And that risk should be reflected in the contract, either in terms of fewer years or (most likely) fewer dollars. There should be some give and take on both sides. That doesn’t mean Tanaka has to agree to a discount. He might say thanks but no thanks, I’ll try my luck at free agency, and I wouldn’t blame him one bit. But if he wants a big deal now, the Yankees will probably push for a slight discount given the elbow.

3. There are ways to build protection into the contract. A Lackey clause, specifically. When the Red Sox signed John Lackey to his five-year contract way back when, they included a clause in the deal that gave them a sixth year club option at the league minimum should Lackey have Tommy John surgery at some point during the life of the contract. He did and they picked up the option. Lackey had a preexisting ligament injury at the time of his signing and the league minimum option year was Boston’s way to protect themselves. The Yankees could apply a Lackey clause to a Tanaka extension, and again, he doesn’t have to accept it.

Alright, so after all of that, what will it take to sign Tanaka to an extension right now? I really have no idea what Tanaka and his agents will want. Ideally, the Yankees would tack something like two years and $50M on top of his current deal, but that essentially gives Tanaka and five-year deal worth $117M covering 2017-21. That’s not much better than Samardzija money. Unless Tanaka is truly concerned about his elbow, I can’t see him taking that. He’d beat that in free agency.

The Yankees might have to add something closer to three years and $90M to Tanaka’s contract to get his attention. Top free agent starters are getting $30M a year now, remember. Zack Greinke, David Price, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer are all there right now. If the Red Sox approach Chris Sale or the Giants approach Madison Bumgarner about an extension, their annual salary demands will be begin with a three. That’s the market now.

Adding three years and $90M to Tanaka’s contract puts him at six years and $157M total from 2017-22. That’s Cole Hamels (six years, $144M) and Jon Lester (six years, $155M) money. Seems much more reasonable to me. Let’s call it six years and $160M total with a Lackey clause added at the end. That takes Tanaka through 2022 and his age 33 season if the elbow holds up. That’s just young enough to land another nice contract, a la James Shields two years ago.

(David Banks/Getty)
(David Banks/Getty)

Now for the two big questions. One, why would Tanaka do this? Money, duh. He’d forego free agency for a large guarantee now. Tanaka would be trading his maximum earning potential, meaning a free agent bidding war, for the guaranteed cash upfront. Keep in mind Tanaka has already made a fortune playing baseball. The Yankees have paid him $66M the last three years, plus there’s whatever he made in Japan. He’s presumably comfortable enough financially that he can roll the dice in 2017 and shoot for the big free agent payday next winter. And if he gets hurt next year, he won’t opt out and will still have $67M coming to him. It’s a good spot to be in, that’s for sure.

And two, why would the Yankees do this? To keep their ace and avoid a free agent bidding war. A bidding war is bad news. Next offseason’s free agent pitching class looks much better than this year’s at the moment — Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish are both scheduled to hit the open market after next season — but that won’t hurt Tanaka. Ace caliber starters are always in demand and teams will be lining up to pay him. Mark Melancon‘s market wasn’t hurt by Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen this winter, was it? Nope. Arrieta and Darvish won’t take money away from Tanaka next offseason and vice versa.

The chances of Tanaka eclipsing five years and $138M — my proposed six-year, $160M deal minus the 2017 season — as a free agent next winter are pretty damn good, I think. The Yankees want to avoid that. They want to get out ahead of market and sign Tanaka without having to worry about the Dodgers or Nationals or whoever swooping in to sign him. Also, the Yankees are short on pitching beyond 2017. Extending Tanaka would help solve that problem.

This offseason is the best time to sign Tanaka to an extension because it’s pretty much the only time to sign him to an extension. Sure, the two sides could negotiate a new deal during the season, but players usually try to avoid that. They like to focus on baseball and not contract talks once Spring Training begins. Maybe Tanaka is different. Maybe he’s more than willing to talk contract during the 2017 season. Who knows.

Waiting until next offseason, right before the opt-out, gives Tanaka all the leverage. That’s what happened with Sabathia years ago. The Yankees had their backs up against the wall because they didn’t want Sabathia to actually use the opt-out and create a bidding war. Waiting until after next season would give Tanaka that same leverage. The Yankees at least have some leverage right now. There’s less urgency. They don’t have to sign him, after all.

I don’t expect the Yankees to get serious about an extension with Tanaka this offseason. They seem too dug on in getting under the luxury tax threshold in the near future, and a big money contract would complicate that. Also, it’s not really the club’s M.O. to sign players to extensions. Brett Gardner is the only notable exception in the last eight or nine years. If the Yankees are going to go against the grain though, Tanaka’s the kind of player you do it for.

Extension or no extension, Tanaka is the Yankees’ best player and therefore most indispensable player. The pending opt-out makes 2017 a huge season for both Tanaka and the team. He wants to put himself in the best possible position going into free agency, and the Yankees want him to pitch well because it’ll help them win. The better he pitches, the more likely he is to opt-out though. It’s a Catch-22. An extension now would solve a lot of problems.

Monday Notes: Sabathia, Tanaka, WBC, Otani

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

The 2017 Winter Meetings are in full swing down at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center just south of Washington, DC. Here are the day’s Yankees-related rumors and here are some other bits of news and notes.

Sabathia doing well after knee surgery

At a charity event over the weekend, CC Sabathia told Evan Drellich he is doing well following right knee surgery earlier in the offseason. His throwing program is set to begin today. Sabathia had what the Yankees called a “routine clean-up” procedure on his knee after the season, the knee that has given him all that trouble in recent years. The procedure was planned well in advance. It wasn’t a surprise or anything.

Sabathia, 36, is entering the final year of his contract, and he’s probably the second best starter on the team right now. I know if the Yankees were facing a must win game and my choices to start were Sabathia or Michael Pineda, I’d go with Sabathia. Don’t know about you. Sabathia reinvented himself as a cutter pitcher this summer and had his best season since 2012. I’m hopeful the new approach will allow him to remain effective at least one more year. Given his age and all those innings on his arm though, you never really know.

Tanaka wants to pitch in WBC

Even after pitching in the 2009 and 2013 events, Masahiro Tanaka would like to pitch in the World Baseball Classic next spring, he told the Japan Times. “There’s been no development (in my roster status), but of course I have the motivation (to play),” he said. Tanaka threw 9.1 innings across one start and seven relief appearances in the 2009 and 2013 WBCs. He won the title with Japan in 2009.

Japan nor any other team has released their final 2017 WBC roster. Those aren’t due until January. Interestingly enough, Japan did not take any MLB players in the 2013 WBC. Not even Ichiro. It was all NPB players. It’s unclear if that’s a new policy or just a one-time blip. They did use MLB players in the 2006 and 2009 WBCs. If Tanaka wants to pitch, the Yankees can’t stop him. I don’t like the idea of him throwing intense innings in March any more than you do. Blah. Tanaka is one of several Yankees who could wind up playing in the WBC.

Otani hopes to come to MLB next offseason

According to the Japan Times, Nippon Ham Fighters ace Shohei Otani has told the team he wants to be posted next offseason. He signed a new one-year contract with the (Ham) Fighters over the weekend, ensuring he won’t be posted this winter, but next winter is apparently his target. “I know that the club will respect my will whenever I decide I want to go (to MLB). It is pleasing to get that support and I’m thankful for it,” said Otani.

Otani, who has been working out with Tanaka this offseason, is the best player in the world not under contract with an MLB team. You could argue he’s the best hitter and pitcher not in MLB. Otani will turn 23 in July, meaning he will be subject to the international hard cap put in place by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. My guess is MLB and the MLBPA will agree to make Otani exempt from the hard cap. Either that, or he’s going to come over when his earning potential is severely limited.

Dellin Betances isn’t the only Yankee who could play in the 2017 WBC

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

In a few weeks baseball players all around the league will leave their teams in Spring Training to participate in the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic. Pool play begins March 6th in South Korea, and the tournament will end with the Championship Game at Dodger Stadium on March 22nd. Here is the full 2017 WBC schedule.

The 16 countries do not have to finalize their WBC rosters until January, though we already know Dellin Betances will pitch for the Dominican Republic. He committed to them recently. Betances was on Team USA’s preliminary roster but instead choose to honor his family by pitching for the Dominican Republic squad. So far he’s the only Yankees player to commit to the WBC.

The Yankees are not as star-laden as they once were — a few years ago a case could have been made their entire starting infield belonged in the WBC — so they don’t figure to send a ton of players to the WBC next spring. Chances are Betances won’t be the only Yankee to participatein the event, however. In fact, farmhand Dante Bichette Jr. already played for Brazil in the qualifying round in September. Who knew? (Brazil did not advance.)

So, as we wait for the commitments to trickle in and the final rosters to be announced, lets look at the Yankees who could wind up joining Betances and participating in the WBC. Keep in mind the WBC is not limited to big league players — some countries can’t field an entire roster of MLB players, hence Bichette playing for Brazil — and the rosters are 28 players deep, not 25, so there are extra spots.

Canada: Evan Rutckyj

Rutckyj, who recently re-signed with the Yankees as a minor league free agent, was the team’s 16th round pick back in 2010. The Braves took a look at him this past spring as a Rule 5 Draft pick, but Rutckyj failed to make the Opening Day roster and instead returned to the Yankees. He struck out 14 in 11.2 innings around a relatively minor elbow procedure during the 2016 regular season.

Only eleven pitchers born in Canada have appeared in the big leagues over the last three years — only seven did so in 2016 — and five of those eleven threw fewer than 20 innings. Three of the other six are now retired (Erik Bedard, Jeff Francis, Phillippe Aumont). Rutckyj, who grew up across the river from Detroit in Windsor, has had some Double-A success as a reliever and could make a Canada roster that has been heavy on minor league pitchers in previous WBCs.

Colombia: Tito Polo, Carlos Vidal

Colombia clinched their first ever WBC berth by winning their qualifying round back in March. They won a pool that included France, Spain, and Panama. Both Polo and Vidal were on Colombia’s roster for the qualifying round and chances are they will be on the actual WBC roster as well. Only six Colombian-born players appeared in MLB in 2016, one of whom was Donovan Solano and none of whom were an outfielder like Polo and Vidal.

Vidal, 20, has spent most of his career with the various short season league teams in New York’s farm system. He went 2-for-8 with a double and played in all three qualifying games in March. Polo, 22, came over from the Pirates in the Ivan Nova trade. He was Colombia’s extra outfielder in the qualifying round. He appeared in two games as a a pinch-runner and defensive replacement and did not get an at-bat. Both Vidal and Polo figure to play in the WBC in March.

Dominican Republic: Gary Sanchez (Starlin Castro?)

WBC teammates? (Rich Schultz/Getty)
WBC teammates? (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Over the last three seasons, the leader in bWAR among Dominican-born catchers is Welington Castillo. Sanchez is second. For all the great baseball players to come out of the Dominican Republic, the island hasn’t produced much catching talent in recent years. Their catching tandem in the 2013 WBC was Francisco Pena, Tony’s son, and Carlos Santana, who is no longer a catcher.

The Dominican Republic’s current catching pool includes Sanchez, Castillo, Pena, Pedro Severino of the Nationals, and Alberto Rosario of the Cardinals. I have to think they want Sanchez and Castillo there. Then again, Tony might want Francisco on the roster, and I’m sure the Yankees would rather Sanchez spend his first Spring Training as the No. 1 catcher learning the pitching staff.

The Yankees can’t stop Gary from going to the WBC if he’s invited though. They might need Pena to pull some strings, which would be kind of a dick move. I’m sure Sanchez would love to play. Bottom line: Sanchez is arguably the best Dominican catcher in baseball right now and inarguably one of the two best. In what is intended to be a best vs. best tournament, Gary belongs on the Dominican Republic roster.

(For what it’s worth, Victor Baez reports Pena promised Sanchez he would be considered for the WBC team, but acknowledged things may change before the final roster is submitted.)

As for Castro, he has an awful lot of competition on the Dominican Republic middle infield. Robinson Cano is the presumed starter at second with someone like Jose Reyes or Jean Segura at short. Jonathan Villar, Jose Ramirez, Eduardo Nunez, Jhonny Peralta, and some others are WBC candidates too. Castro’s a possibility for the tournament but probably isn’t part of the club’s Plan A infield.

Japan: Masahiro Tanaka

Interestingly enough, not a single MLB player was on Japan’s roster for the 2013 WBC. Not even Ichiro Suzuki. They filled their entire roster with NPB players. Japan has had big leaguers on their roster in previous WBCs, including Ichiro and Daisuke Matsuzaka, just not in the last one. Will they invite big leaguers this time? I honestly have no idea. We’re going to have to wait and find out.

If Japan does want current MLB players, Tanaka figures to be near the top of their list. He’s one of the best pitchers in baseball and on the very short list of the best Japanese-born pitchers on the planet. The Yankees can’t stop Tanaka from playing in the 2017 WBC. Brian Cashman confirmed it during his end-of-season press conference. Needless to say, the thought of Tanaka suffering an injury during the WBC is enough to make you squeamish. The Yankees have already been through that once before, with Mark Teixeira and his wrist in the 2013 WBC.

For what it’s worth, Tanaka has participated in the WBC twice before. He was on Japan’s roster in both 2009 and 2013, throwing 9.1 total innings across one start and seven relief appearances. Maybe that was enough for Tanaka? Maybe he’s had his fill of the WBC — Japan won the 2009, so he has a championship — and would rather focus on the Yankees in Spring Training and putting himself in the best position to use his opt-out the team in the best position to win? Gosh, I hope so.

Mexico: Luis Cessa, Gio Gallegos

Fifteen pitchers born in Mexico have appeared in the big leagues over the last three seasons, and 13 of those 15 did so in 2016. The two exceptions are ex-Yankees: Manny Banuelos and Al Aceves. Banuelos is coming off another injury and Aceves spent the 2016 season in the Mexican League. Mexico figures to try to build their WBC rotation from a group that includes Marco Estrada, Julio Urias, Jorge De La Rosa, Yovani Gallardo, Jaime Garcia, and Miguel Gonzalez.

Cessa and Gallegos — fun fact: the Yankees signed Gallegos away from a Mexican League team as part of a package deal with Banuelos and Aceves in 2007 — could be candidates for Mexico’s bullpen. Especially Cessa since he has MLB experience. Gallegos might not get much consideration given the fact he has yet to pitch in the show. Roberto Osuna, Joakim Soria, and Oliver Perez are likely to be Mexico’s late-inning relievers, but they’re going to need other pitchers for middle relief, especially early in the tournament when starters have limited pitch counts.

Keep in mind both Cessa and Gallegos figure to come to Spring Training with a chance to win an Opening Day roster spot. Cessa will be among those competing for a rotation spot, which is kind of a big deal. Gallegos, who the Yankees added to the 40-man roster earlier this month to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, is trying to reach the show for the first time. As much as I’m sure both guys would love to represent their country in the WBC, they would be better off hanging around Spring Training and focusing on winning a roster spot with the Yankees at this point of their careers.

Netherlands: Didi Gregorius

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

The Dutch team has had to rely heavily on players from Honkbal Hoofdklasse, the highest level of pro ball in the Netherlands, to fill their WBC roster in the past. The same figures to be true this year. Only six Dutch players have played in MLB the last two years: Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts, Jonathan Schoop, Jurickson Profar, and Kenley Jansen. So, if nothing else, the Netherlands doesn’t have to worry about their infield or closer. They’ll need Honkballers in the outfield and rotation.

It’s entirely possible the Netherlands will look to take all five of those infielders to the WBC because, well, they’re the best players the country has to offer. Profar has played first base and Bogaerts has played third, so the starting infield could very well be those two on the corners with the other three guys splitting time up the middle and at DH. Gregorius was not on the 2013 WBC roster, and with his Yankees roster spot secure, he could jump at the opportunity to play for the Netherlands.

Team USA: Tyler Clippard (Brett Gardner? Jacoby Ellsbury?)

Even with Betances committing to the Dominican Republic, Team USA’s potential bullpen is insane. Zach Britton closing with Andrew Miller and Craig Kimbrel setting up, Wade Davis as the fireman, Mark Melancon and Tony Watson as the middle relievers … goodness. What are the odds of that happening though? Extremely small. Some of those guys are going to pass on the tournament. Happens every WBC.

The Team USA bullpen in 2013 included Kimbrel and, uh, Luke Gregerson? Tim Collins? Mitchell Boggs? Vinnie Pestano? Yup. Yup yup yup. Team USA’s leader in relief innings in 2013 was Ross Detwiler. So yeah. The odds of a super-bullpen are so very small. Clippard could be among the club’s Plan B or C relievers. Team USA is going to miss out on a ton of the top guys, no doubt, so who’s next in line? Clippard could be one of them.

Along those same lines, I suppose Gardner and/or Ellsbury could receive outfield consideration if enough top guys drop out. We already know Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are passing on the tournament. Team USA would need to receive a lot of “nos” before considering Ellsbury and Gardner for their outfield — they ranked 12th and 20th in bWAR among American-born outfielders in 2016 — but hey, you never know.

* * *

The Yankees are said to have interest in bringing Carlos Beltran back, and I have to think he will suit up for Puerto Rico in the WBC next spring. The next generation of Puerto Rican stars has arrived (Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez) but Beltran is still insanely popular in Puerto Rico, and he usually gives the people what they want. Aroldis Chapman, on the other hand, won’t pitch for Cuba regardless of whether he returns to the Yankees. No expatriates on the national team.

Tanaka’s Falling Strikeout Rate

Masahiro Tanaka
(Getty)

There’s no denying that Masahiro Tanaka had a brilliant season in 2016. For the first time in his three-year career, he had a legitimate shot at the Cy Young Award and ended up finishing seventh in the balloting. He tied his career high in ERA- at 72 and was close to his career high FIP- of 78 with a mark of 80 this year; he put up a career high ground ball rate while notching new career lows in infield fly ball percentage and home run/fly ball percentage. The only thing he didn’t do as well as he’d done previously is strike batters out.

Continuing a trend, Tanka’s K/9 dipped again this year, falling to 7.44 from 8.12, which was down from 9.31 in 2014. His K% shows a similar downturn, going from 26 in 2014 to 22.8 in 2015 and 20.5 in 2016. 20.5 K% is still good, especially considering he’s never posted a BB% above 4.5 (this year’s mark). And given the change in approach that Mike described here, a drop in strikeout numbers wouldn’t be unexpected. Still, it’s worth taking a look to see what’s behind the dip in whiffs because punchouts are fun and the most efficient way to get a batter out.

tanaka cap tip
(AP)

Let’s start with the out-pitch, the one whose reputation came in tow when Tanaka arrived in MLB, the splitter. In 2014, he generated a 46.01 whiff/swing rate on the pitch. It dropped to 33.33 in 2015, then to 30.00 in 2016. As a percentage of his strikeouts, the splitter has gone from being about half of them (2014) to about a third of them or a little more (2015-16). Of course, when your groundball/balls-in-play percentage is in the mid to high sixties with a pitch, the declining strikeout rate is something you can live with. Tanaka’s slider tells a similar story. The whiff/swing rate on his slider has gone from 39.55 to 34.38 to 33.16. The GB/BIP rate has gone from 31.37 to 39.00 to 40.74.

If we take a look at the splitter and where Tanaka likes to throw it, we get a good idea of why whiffs and grounders happen. The bottom drops out of the splitter and the batter either swings over it or beats it into the ground. The conclusion drawn before–fewer strikeouts, more grounders–is fleshed out here as well. Take a look at the whiff/swing rate on Tanaka’s three most popular spillter locations in 20142015, and 2016; there’s a general downward trend, suggesting that hitters are making more contact with those pitches, even if they’re not doing a lot with them. His slider has shown a similar trend, gathering more grounders in the lower part of the zone as the years have gone on.

We tend to take a drop in strikeout rate as a cause for alarm among pitchers and I’m generally inclined to agree with that quick assessment. However, while it’s something to watch with our beloved, underrated TANAK, I’m not overly worried. He showed this year that he can be incredibly successful without having to get too many strikeouts and, frankly, this is a microcosm of him as a pitcher. Each game, Tanaka seems to bring a new strategy, a new approach to the mound and that’s been true on the broad scale of his three year career. As a pitcher who seems to reinvent himself every start, he’s capable of displaying greatness in myriad ways, strikeouts or not.

Masahiro Tanaka finishes seventh in AL Cy Young voting

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Earlier tonight, the BBWAA announced Red Sox righty Rick Porcello has won the 2016 AL Cy Young award. He won despite receiving fewer first place votes (14-8) than Tigers righty Justin Verlander, who finished second in the voting. Indians righty Corey Kluber finished third. Here are the full voting results.

This was the second closest vote in Cy Young history. Porcello beat out Verlander by a mere five voting points. The closest vote ever? Back in 2012, when Verlander finished four points behind David Price. Womp womp. Porcello won because he had way more second place than Verlander (18-2), and also because two writers left Verlander off their ballot entirely. A Red Sox pitcher second placing his way to the Cy Young is fitting, I’d say.

Anywho, Masahiro Tanaka finished tied for the seventh in the voting with Blue Jays righty Aaron Sanchez. Tanaka received one fourth place vote and four fifth place votes. He finished behind Porcello, Verlander, Kluber, Orioles closer Zach Britton, White Sox lefty Chris Sale, and Blue Jays lefty J.A. Happ. Tanaka received Cy Young votes for the first time this year, and they were well deserved.

Also noteworthy: ex-Yankee Andrew Miller finished ninth in the Cy Young voting. He received one third place vote. Hooray for that. Gary Sanchez finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting and Joe Girardi finished fifth in the Manager of the Year voting. The MVPs will be announced tomorrow.