Armed with new mechanics, Masahiro Tanaka looks to be the exception after elbow injury

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Since the very first day of Spring Training, Alex Rodriguez has dominated the headlines from Yankees’ camp. They’re inescapable. Hopefully that will start to change now that Grapefruit League play has begun, but I’m guessing that’s not the case. C’est la vie.

Despite A-Rod‘s presence, the single most important story in camp this year is the status of Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow. He faced hitters in live batting practice for the first time yesterday and so far everything is going well. Tanaka feels great and the coaching staff is pleased with how he is throwing. Can’t ask for much more at this point. So far, so good.

Tanaka admitted to slightly altering his throwing program over the winter — he threw with less intensity, basically — following last season’s elbow injury, but that’s not the only change he made. Jeff Passan recently managed to tear himself away from A-Rod long enough to learn Tanaka has altered his mechanics in hopes of keeping his elbow healthy. That … seems like a pretty big deal. From Passan:

“I don’t think (my mechanics) were solid (before the injury),” Tanaka told Yahoo Sports through interpreter Shingo Horie recently. “With the right mechanics, the right form, the right balance, you’re able to throw a solid pitch. It’s not about how much power you can put on the throw. It’s more about the mechanics. That’s what I believe.

“I’m never really satisfied. Your body is different every day. You’ve got to talk with your body and make small or, sometimes, big adjustments to get that pitch form right. It’s hard to get to a point where you’re completely satisfied with your mechanics.”

Passan doesn’t give many details about the mechanical adjustments but does say they “mostly (have) to do with ensuring his arm is in sync with the rest of his delivery, preventing excessive stress on the elbow.” It sounds not like some sort of mechanical overhaul, but minor tweaks to be more efficient and maybe incorporate his lower half more.

So will the new mechanics a) keep Tanaka healthy, and b) impact his performance in any way? There’s no possible way I could answer that and I’m guessing Tanaka and the Yankees wouldn’t be able to tell you with any certainty either. They clearly think these adjustments at least have a chance to help him stay healthy without hurting performance. Otherwise the adjustments wouldn’t have been made.

It’s easy to say Tanaka’s injury is the result of throwing so many splitters, and while that may very be true, it’s worth noting pitchers in Japan use the splitter a ton and have a way lower rate of Tommy John surgery than their MLB counterparts. Tanaka’s elbow may have started barking because his mechanics were a bit out of whack, which is what he is aiming to fix. Or maybe he hurt his elbow because sometimes pitchers just break. Who knows? Pitching ain’t natural.

Many pitchers have suffered partially torn UCLs like Tanaka and very few have been able to significantly delay surgery. Even fewer have been able to avoid it all together. Tanaka is trying to become one of those exceptions and stay healthy after getting hurt, and these mechanical changes are part of his efforts to stay on the mound. Everything in camp has gone well so far, and while I’m not sure I’ll ever truly feel confident in that elbow going forward, Tanaka seems to be, and that is important.

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Girardi’s Press Conference Notes: A-Rod, Rotation, Spring Competitions

Spring Training is officially underway. Pitchers and catchers reported to Tampa today and the first actual workout is scheduled for tomorrow. Plenty of players have already been down at the complex working out for days if not weeks.

Joe Girardi held his annual start of Spring Training press conference this morning, and, as you can imagine, there were a ton of Alex Rodriguez question. But thankfully, there were some actual baseball questions too. It was a nice change of pace. “Name tags are an option,” joked Girardi because of all the new players in camp.

Video of the press conference is above. Here’s an abridged version and some thoughts.

On A-Rod

  • On the apology letter: “A person’s approach is the way they feel most comfortable doing it, whether that’s how you or me or anyone else would have done it … I think he apologized to the game. Steroids have hurt this game. It has changed the way we look at a lot of things … (The apology) was Alex’s choice and it was the way he was comfortable doing it and we’ll deal with it.”
  • On balancing workload and preparation: “I think you’re talking about him possibly DHing on a lot of days in Spring Training. That’s not quite as taxing as playing everyday in the field. He’s going to need to get his a-bats.”
  • On possibly playing first base: “That will be a conversation I have when he gets here. I want to see his face (and his reaction). He said he’s willing to do whatever he can to help us.”
  • On expectations: “I haven’t really put any numbers on it. I said this earlier: I think it’s fair to give him a fair number of at-bats before you start to judge where he might be at just because he’s played 44 games in two years and did not play last year, and I think it’s going to take him a good part of Spring Training just to get his timing down.”
  • On being a distraction: “One of the things I learned in 1996 when I came here is this is a different place. It’s different when you put on a New York Yankees uniform. You are with one of the most recognizable companies in the world. That’s part of the gig here … For the new players that are here, they’re going to get it right away … If you’re with the New York Yankees you need to learn how to deal with situations like that.”

Girardi also said the Yankees could opt to send A-Rod to minor league camp some days so he could get more work in. Minor league camp is pretty informal, he could leadoff every inning and get way more at-bats then he could in regular Grapefruit League games. Long story short, Girardi has no idea what to expect from Alex on the field and they need to see him in camp before finalizing any plans.

These press conferences are usually a little light and upbeat, especially early in Spring Training, but Girardi seemed pretty serious when asked about A-Rod being a distraction. His answer about players needing to be able to deal with it while playing for the Yankees was firm. He didn’t beat around the bush. Girardi knows it’s going to be a distraction and he expects his players to deal with it like professionals.

On Priorities In Camp

  • The rotation: “I think getting the rotation ironed out, seeing how all these guys fit and how it affects the bullpen guys who will begin Spring Training as a starting pitcher, who can possibly push their way into the rotation.”
  • The lineup: “Figuring out our batting order I think is something important. There’s some people we don’t know exactly where they’re at.” (Meaning A-Rod, physically.)
  • Picking a closer and possibly using co-closers: “I think you could do that. Would you like to iron it out? Sure. I think you have to see how people react in those situations. A number of guys I think are capable of closing, but I think (both Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller) are more than capable.”
  • Competition in general: “I think there’s probably a little more open competition (than most years). I’ll try to reiterate to our players on a constant basis you’re not going to impress me the first day of camp, not going to impress me first week of camp.”

Girardi mentioned most of the competition in camp will be for specific roles and not necessarily roster spots. Aside from the last bullpen spot, the roster is mostly set right now. They have just to figure out who goes where in terms of the batting order and bullpen, specifically.

These are the sort of things that can’t be ironed out until the very end of camp too. Early on, players need to get their timing back and get back into the swing of playing. They’re not — or shouldn’t be, anyway — trying to put up big numbers the first few weeks of camp. After a few weeks of games the coaching staff will be better able to slot people into roles. Right now, they have to focus on getting ready. Late-March is when Girardi has to put together the roster puzzle.

On The Rotation

  • On CC Sabathia: “Until you really get him into the rigors of pitching every fifth day, and possibly going three or four turns on regular rest, you’re not really sure how that knee is going to fare. We feel good about it and we feel good about where he’s at.”
  • On Masahiro Tanaka: “I think you can say the same thing about Tanaka. What he’s went through is not really uncommon. There have been a lot of pitchers who have pitched a substantial amount of time (with the same injury) before something had to happen.”
  • On keeping tabs on Tanaka in the offseason: “They would communicate through (head trainer) Stevie Donohue. I would keep in contact with Stevie and see how Masahiro was doing. Its difficult because he’s not pitching in games in the offseason. A lot of us feel great in the offseason. It’s the second week in camp we start to feel sore.”
  • On Nathan Eovaldi: “We expect him to be one of our starters and be extremely productive and mature as a pitcher and develop as a pitcher. (He’s a guy) who can be a workhorse for you and give you valuable innings. We expect him to be a big part of our rotation.”
  • On a potential six-man rotation: “It’s something that we will talk about. As far as having a six-man rotation all the time, no. But if you get into long situations where you play 18 games in a row, could we inject a (sixth starter) to give the guys extra rest. Absolutely.”

Girardi also mentioned they are pleased with Ivan Nova‘s progress during his rehab from Tommy John surgery and there are no restrictions for Tanaka’s spring work. He’ll prepare like any other season. He didn’t say if the same is true for Sabathia because no one asked.

It was pretty clear from his tone that Girardi knows there is a lot of injury risk in the rotation and guys might not make it through camp in one piece. He also seems to know it’s pretty much out of his hands. The team followed doctor’s orders with Tanaka and Sabathia and if they say they’re healthy, they have to proceed accordingly. I like the idea of mixing in the occasional sixth starter earlier in the season much better than a straight up six-man rotation too.

Miscellany

  • On leadership without Derek Jeter: “I think within a clubhouse you can have one person who is considered the leader, but I think there are fractions of that as well (meaning a bullpen leader, a rotation leader, etc.) … I think you’ll have guys step up in different areas. I think there’s enough veteran presence and leadership qualities that guys will just handle it.”
  • On expectations: “I think you come into Spring Training every year with the goal to win and be the best you can be as a club. There are a lot of things we need to iron out. Probably more than I can remember. Some of it because of injury and some of it because of new faces. I think this team has a chance to be really good.”
  • On other teams in the AL East: “Oh I think you obviously pay attention to what other teams are doing. What you realize over a 162-game schedule is there’s a lot of things that have to go right for you to be the winner at the end … Sometimes just everything pretty much goes according to plan.”

Yeah, the Yankees are due for one of those years where everything goes pretty much according to plan.

Tanaka arrives in Tampa, long-tosses for 34 minutes

(NY Daily News)
(NY Daily News)

Pitchers and catchers aren’t scheduled to report for Spring Training until Friday, but several players are already in Tampa working out at the Yankees’ minor league complex. One of those players is Masahiro Tanaka, who arrived in town earlier this week and worked out at the complex for the first time yesterday.

According to the Associated Press, Tanaka played catch for 34 minutes yesterday, making throws as far as 200 feet. He wrapped up his throwing session with 16 throws from flat ground using his normal delivery. Tanaka, as you know, missed about three months with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow last year. He had no issues with the elbow during offseason workouts and apparently everything went fine yesterday.

“So far everything is good,” said pitching Larry Rothschild to the Associated Press earlier this week when asked about Tanaka’s offseason work. “That doesn’t mean it will be going forward, but we’re going to do everything we can. We’ll put schedules together and things like that to try to keep him healthy.”

Tanaka did not talk to reporters after throwing yesterday — “He looked like the same guy, smiling all the time. When I saw his throwing program, he looked good,” said Ivan Nova, who was also at the complex — but is scheduled to talk to the media on Friday. Needless to say, his elbow is going to be a focal point this spring. Tanaka might be the biggest x-factor for the team’s success in 2015 and every day he goes without an issue is a good day.

Injury Updates: Tanaka, Sabathia, Nova, Bailey, Heathcott, Barbato, Hensley

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

Here are some injury updates with pitchers and catchers only ten days away from reporting to Tampa for the start of Spring Training 2015. The updates come courtesy of Brad Lefton, Dan Martin, Chad Jennings, and the Associated Press.

  • Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) adjusted his usual offseason program and has not been throwing with as much intensity as he had in the past. “Right from the beginning of camp last year, all the pitchers were throwing in the bullpen, but they were just easing into it, so there’s really no reason for me to push myself to throw full throttle before I even get there this time,” he said.
  • CC Sabathia (knee) is working out and throwing regularly at Yankee Stadium. “I don’t think we have anything to worry about how his arm works or how his knee works. Not anymore,” said Brian Cashman. Sabathia is expected to be a healthy player come the start of Spring Training.
  • Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery) has been throwing on flat ground and recently said his elbow feels great. He should start throwing off a mound very soon if he hasn’t already. Nova is currently on track to rejoin the team in June after having surgery late last April.
  • Andrew Bailey (shoulder) is expected to be a healthy and active pitcher in Spring Training. He missed all of last season following shoulder capsule surgery. “He’s in a throwing program, and there’s been nothing adverse reported from him,” said assistant GM Billy Eppler.
  • Slade Heathcott (knee) is also expected to be fully healthy for Spring Training. He had knee surgery last offseason and another one in June. “His progressions are moving forward really positively. The last checkup we had, he’s able to do full baseball activities, it’s just (a question of) how regular and how long of a duration,” said Eppler.
  • Johnny Barbato (elbow) is healthy and will start the season on time after missing the second half of 2014 with an elbow strain. “He was cleared and good to go,” said Eppler while noting Barbato healed up in time to pitch in Instructional League for the Padres last fall. The Yankees acquired Barbato in the Shawn Kelley trade.
  • And finally, Ty Hensley (face) has already resumed throwing bullpen sessions after he was viciously attacked during the holidays, according to his Twitter feed. Hensley’s jaw had to be wired shut due to the attack so he’ll likely lose some weight. He might have to rebuild some strength before the Yankees turn him loose this summer.

Ranking the 40-Man Roster: No. 1

Over the last two weeks we subjectively ranked and analyzed every player on the Yankees’ 40-man roster — based on their short and long-term importance to the team — and you disagreed with our rankings. We’ve already covered Nos. 2, 3-5, 6-10, 11-14, 15-16, 17-19, 20-25, 26-31, and 32-40.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

After two weeks and 39 players, we’ve finally reached the number one spot on our 40-man roster rankings. The most important player in the organization, both for this coming season and the next half-decade as well. There is no right answer for an exercise like this, but I am guessing most of you agree with the player who claims the top spot. I have a hard time seeing how it could be anyone else, really.

Also, shout-out to the Yankees for not making a 40-man roster move these last two weeks. That would have thrown a wrench into this little series, but it wouldn’t have changed the top spot. Well, a blockbuster trade might have, but realistically that wasn’t going to happen. Anyway, without further ado, here is the final entry into our 40-man roster ranking series.

No 1: Masahiro Tanaka

2015 Role: Ace. It took very little time for Tanaka to show he is that caliber of pitcher last season. He really is the total package. Tanaka has primo stuff — highlighted by his devastating split-finger fastball — and top notch command, which allows him to pile up strikeouts, limit walks, and keep the ball on the ground. Plus he’s a stone cold assassin on the mound. He pitches with conviction and nothing seems to rattle him.

In his first season as big leaguer, Tanaka struck out 26.0% of batters faced and walked only 3.9% of batters faced, the 11th and 7th best rates among the 120 pitchers to throw at least 130 innings in 2014, respectively. Only Clayton Kershaw (14.1%) and Francisco Liriano (13.6%) had higher swing-and-miss rates (13.4%). Tanaka also got a ground ball 46.6% of the time. This was a big time performance in his first season with the Yankees and the club wants to see more this coming season.

Of course, Tanaka’s outlook for the 2015 season is marred by the partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament. Tanaka suffered the injury in early-July and four different doctors recommended rest and rehab rather than Tommy John surgery. He missed three months, made two token “hey look my arm still works” starts the end of the regular season, and will come to Spring Training as a healthy player. That’s what Brian Cashman and the Yankees keep saying. Tanaka is a healthy player. He completed the rehab regimen and the doctors gave him the okay to pitch.

With any luck, Tanaka will be like Adam Wainwright and Ervin Santana, who pitched for years with a partially torn UCL before needing Tommy John surgery. (Santana hasn’t had surgery yet and is still pitching with the partial tear.) At some point the elbow is going to give out. It could be this year, next year, or ten years down the line. For obvious reasons, the Yankees hope Tanaka’s elbow holds up this summer and he remains a force atop the rotation.

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Long-Term Role: Short-term ace or long-term question mark. Tanaka just turned 26 in November, so as long as he stays healthy, there is every reason to believe he will be one of the top pitchers in MLB. But, beyond the thing with his elbow, Tanaka’s contract structure clouds his long-term future with the Yankees.

New York gave Tanaka a seven-year contract worth $155M last winter that includes an opt-out after the fourth year. And why do players use opt-out clauses? To get more money. So if Tanaka stays healthy and productive, he’ll opt out of his contract following the 2017 season and seek a bigger deal. Re-signing him could be a headache since you’re talking about a massive contract for a pitcher approaching 30, especially if the elbow hasn’t given out and you know it’s still coming eventually.

But, if Tanaka’s elbow does blow out at some point relatively soon and he scuffles these next few years, he’ll take the guaranteed money and be a question going forward. The opt-out is almost a no win situation. I know people like to say you could get the best years of his career and let someone else pay through the nose for his decline, but that doesn’t really happen with the Yankees. They want to keep their star players and are more likely to pay a steep price to keep Tanaka than let him walk. If he is healthy and dominant enough to justify opting out, the team’s history suggests they’ll try to bring him back.

Alright, so that said, Tanaka’s role for at least the next three seasons continues to be ace. The elbow is an ugly cloud over everything, but hey, any pitcher can blow out at any time. I guess Tanaka is no different in that regard. The Yankees emphasized youth this offseason but it really started last winter, when they paid a handsome price to land Tanaka because he wasn’t just dominant, he was dominant and only 25 years old. Elbow issues or not, a 26-year-old ace with potentially six more years left on his contract is an easy call for the most important player on the 40-man roster.

Kyodo: “So far so good” for Tanaka during offseason workouts

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Pitchers and catchers are three weeks and one day away from reporting to Spring Training (!), which means the Masahiro Tanaka Elbow Watch will soon be in full swing. The Yankees lost their ace for three months last season due to a small tear in his UCL, though doctors recommended rest and rehab rather than Tommy John surgery.

Given the history of the rehab approach, it feels like it’s only a matter of time until Tanaka’s elbow gives out completely. It could be in Spring Training, in June, or in 2020. It has not happened this offseason, however. Tanaka has been working out as usual all winter and he told Kyodo everything is going well. “So far so good — including that (the elbow),” he said.

Tanaka is back home in Japan and he’s been working out with former Rakuten Golden Eagles teammates at the club’s training facility. Kyodo says Tanaka has been doing the usual — running sprints, fielding drills, etc. — in addition to his offseason throwing program, which includes breaking balls. This isn’t high intensity, game action type of throwing, that stuff usually doesn’t happen until Spring Training, but he is throwing nonetheless.

Tanaka’s health is the biggest x-factor or the 2015 Yankees. He’s a difference-maker when healthy — easily the best pitcher in the AL East and one of the top four or five in the entire AL — and staying on the mound would improve the team’s outlook greatly. We’re all going to be holding our breath every start (hell, every pitch) though. That’s just the reality of the situation.

Cashman on Tanaka: “He is a healthy player so there’s nothing to report”

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
I love this photo so much. (Brian Blanco/Getty)

While talking with reporters late last week, Brian Cashman confirmed there is nothing new to report on the status of Masahiro Tanaka and his partially torn elbow ligament. “He is a healthy player so there’s nothing to report on him other than you keep your fingers crossed that problem doesn’t rear its ugly head again,’’ said the GM to George King.

Keeping your fingers crossed that Tanaka’s elbow holds up next year is not exactly an ideal strategy, but there’s really not much more the Yankees can do at this point. The rehab treatment was complete and the doctors cleared him to pitch, then he made it through two late-season starts healthy, which was encouraging. Adam Wainwright and Ervin Santana pitched with small tears in their UCL for years.

Tanaka’s health might the biggest x-factor for the 2015 Yankees. If he stays on the mound, he’s an impact pitcher who greatly improves the team’s chances to contend. If he gets hurt, especially early in the season, it’s a huge loss because the drop-off from Tanaka to whoever replaces him in the rotation is substantial. I like Bryan Mitchell and Manny Banuelos, but c’mon, they’re not Tanaka.

The Yankees came into the offseason needing at least one starter and now they need multiple starters after using Shane Greene to get Didi Gregorius. They have to protect themselves against not only Tanaka’s elbow, but also CC Sabathia‘s knee and Michael Pineda‘s shoulder. The good news is that there is still quite a bit of pitching available in free agency. All shapes and sizes too. Aces, mid-rotation guys, reclamation projects, you name it.