Tanaka ranks second among Baseball America’s top rookies for 2014

Despite all his time in Japan, Masahiro Tanaka is technically a rookie this season. He’s eligible for the Rookie of the Year and all that. The rules are silly, but whatever. Matt Eddy of Baseball America put together a list of the top 20 rookies for the 2014 season, and Tanaka ranked second behind Red Sox SS Xander Bogaerts. You don’t need a subscription to read the piece.

“Don’t expect Yu Darvish-level dominance, but international scouts project Tanaka, who signed for seven years and $155 million, to have a No. 2 starter’s ceiling. Also, the Yankees could get 60-plus starts from Japanese pitchers this season—Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda—which would surpass the 44 starts the 2001 Red Sox got from Hideo Nomo and Tomo Ohka,” wrote Eddy. Dellin Betances, who didn’t make the list, is pretty much the only other rookie who could have impact for the Yankees in 2014.

Rotation lined up as Spring Training winds down

Number four in the rotation, number one in our hearts. (Mike Carlson/Getty)
Number four in the rotation, number one in our hearts. (Mike Carlson/Getty)

One thing I’ve come to understand over the years is the order of the starting rotation at the beginning of the season means very little. It’s all symbolism. The Opening Day start usually goes to a veteran who has been with the team a while, not necessarily the best pitcher. Being designated as the staff ace and actually pitching like an ace are two different things. Scheduled off-days and rain-outs throw a wrench into the rotation after a few weeks and the order gets all mixed up anyway. It’s fun to talk about, but the importance is small.

Spring Training ends in less than two weeks — the final Grapefruit League game is next Saturday — and the Yankees have started to line up their rotation for Opening Day and the start of the regular season. I’m sure it has actually been plotted out and planned for a few weeks now, but now that we can see the light at the end of the Spring Training tunnel, the plan is a little more concrete. Courtesy of Chad Jennings, here is the rotation through the weekend according to Joe Girardi:

Wednesday: Ivan Nova
Thursday: David Phelps
Friday: CC Sabathia
Saturday: Masahiro Tanaka
Hiroki Kuroda in a minor league game
Sunday: Michael Pineda

With Vidal Nuno and Adam Warren nowhere to be found, it’s likely both have already made their final starts of the spring. That makes sense, they always seemed to be the distant third and fourth contenders for the final rotation spot. Girardi confirmed Warren will make the team in some capacity a few weeks ago, so he’s headed to the bullpen. Nuno could very well wind up in Triple-A as the sixth starter.

Michael Pineda has been fantastic this spring with the obvious caveats: he’s coming off major shoulder surgery, it’s mid-March, he isn’t stretched out all the way, he hasn’t faced the greatest lineups, etc. Everything we’ve seen so far is encouraging and even though Girardi stopped short of anointing him the fifth starter — “The other guys are throwing pretty well too. We’ve got to figure out what’s best for our team as a whole,” he said to Bryan Hoch yesterday — it sure seems like Pineda is the favorite to start the season in the rotation, relegating David Phelps to the bullpen. So, with that in mind, here’s how next week’s rotation lines up:

  • Monday, March 24th: OFF DAY (Nova throws a simulated or minor league game)
  • Tuesday, March 25th vs. Phillies: Phelps on regular rest
  • Wednesday, March 26th @ Blue Jays: Sabathia on regular rest
  • Thursday, March 27th @ Pirates: Kuroda on regular rest
  • Friday, March 28th vs. Marlins: Tanaka with one extra day of rest
  • Saturday, March 29th vs. Marlins: Nova on regular rest, Pineda???
  • Sunday, March 30th: OFF DAY

According to Jennings, Girardi “hinted that someone will pitch at the complex” during the Monday’s scheduled off-day. Nova lines up perfectly for that day, so he seems to be the guy. Phelps, Sabathia, and Kuroda follow with their final Grapefruit League starts on regular rest, then Tanaka goes with one extra day. The team has said they are planning to give him the extra day here and there. It’s also worth noting that regardless of whether he starts Thursday or Friday (or Saturday or Sunday for that matter), Tanaka will have faced only one AL club this winter (the Twins this coming Saturday). I doubt this was a coincidence. The Yankees kept him hidden from the direct competition while still getting him innings against MLB caliber hitters. Clever.

Anyway, following Tanaka’s start, Nova closes out the Grapefruit League schedule on regular rest next Saturday. What happens with Pineda at that point is anyone’s guess. He could come out of the bullpen to replace Nova, he could throw a simulated game, or he could start a minor league game. The Yankees have options. Pineda will be working on one extra day of rest Saturday and it’s good to give him that little break following his surgery and long rehab. They have to take it easy on him and not work him too hard, too soon.

With that all laid out, here’s how the rotation lines up the following week:

  • Monday, March 31st: OFF DAY
  • Tuesday, April 1st @ Astros: Sabathia with one extra day of rest
  • Wednesday, April 2nd @ Astros: Kuroda with one extra day of rest
  • Thursday, April 3rd @ Astros: Nova on regular rest
  • Friday, April 4th @ Blue Jays: Tanaka with two extra days of rest
  • Saturday, April 5th @ Blue Jays: Pineda with two extra days of rest

Nova’s the only guy who wouldn’t make his first start of the season with extra rest and since he’s young and healthy (and not coming over from Japan), he probably needs the extra rest the least. Pineda could throw a simulated game or pitch in a minor league game on Sunday the 30th instead of Saturday the 29th, allowing him to make that first regular season start on one extra day of rest rather than two. There is such a thing as too much rest, remember. He can get out of rhythm or something like that. Tanaka is used to starting with six days of rest, so the two extra days should be no big deal to him.

The Yankees have indicated Tanaka will start the fourth game of the season rather than the third for two specific reasons. One, they want to split him and Kuroda up since they have very similar styles as fastball/splitter/slider pitchers. (It’s not just a racial thing, you know.) Two, they want to give Tanaka extra rest when they can, and by starting him in the fourth game, he’ll be able to make his third start of the season with an extra day of rest. If he starts the third game of the season, he’d have to make both his second and third starts with normal rest. Anything to help the transition.

Sabathia was pretty terrible last season but he’s getting the nod on Opening Day for past performance. The guy was pretty awesome from 2009-12. Like I said before, the Opening Day start is a novelty more than anything. It doesn’t have any kind of real value to the team. The Game One starter for a postseason series, now that actually matters. Opening Day? Nah, not worth getting upset over. The rotation is all lined up for the start of the season and everyone who needs an extra day or two of rest will get it, and that’s it the most important thing.

2014 Season Preview: Innings Eaters

HIROK and TANAK. (Mike Carlson/Getty)
HIROK and TANAK. (Mike Carlson/Getty)

It wasn’t all that long ago that it felt like a miracle whenever a Yankees’ starter completed six full innings of work. At least it felt like a miracle to me. In fact, from 2006-08, the team’s starters completed six full innings only 284 times out of 486 regular season games, or 58%. Over the last three seasons, that number is 67%. Doesn’t seem like a big difference, but it is one extra start of 6+ innings out of every ten games.

Thankfully things have changed in recent years and I think the reasons are obvious. The Yankees haven’t only added better starters over the last few seasons, but they’ve added more durable starters as well. They’ve been getting not just more innings, but more quality innings, and in turn the workload on the bullpen has been reduced. It makes the entire staff better when the starter can go deep into the game.

This coming season, the Yankees again figure to have a few starters who can be counted on to soak up innings and complete those six innings of every five days. Given the questionable state of the middle of the bullpen, having the starter take the ball deep into the game will be more important to the club in 2014 than it was at any point in the last few years. Who is going to eat up those innings? Let’s preview.

(Stacy Revere/Getty)
(Stacy Revere/Getty)

CC Sabathia
Let’s get this out of the way early: Sabathia was terrible last year. The reasons are whatever the reasons are, but the bottom line is that he ranked 76th with a 4.78 ERA and 72nd with 0.3 bWAR out of 81 qualified starters. Terrible. From 2009-12, even bad Sabathia starts were hardly disasters, usually something like four runs in six innings than six innings in four innings. That wasn’t always the case last summer.

And yet, despite all his struggles, Sabathia still managed to throw 200+ innings for the seventh straight year. Mark Buehrle, James Shields, and Justin Verlander are the only pitchers who can make that claim. Sabathia’s 211 innings were the 16th most in baseball, and he completed six full innings in 24 of his 32 starts. He completed seven full innings 17 times, the 12th most in baseball. CC’s effectiveness is waning but he remains a workhorse of the first order, someone the Yankees can rely on to spare the bullpen every five days. I have very little doubt he will continue to eat innings in 2014.

Hiroki Kuroda
An oblique strain and a concussion caused Kuroda to miss nearly three full months in 2009, but he’s thrown at least 196 innings in the four seasons since. He’s also thrown at least 200 innings in each of the last three seasons. Kuroda, true to his workhorse form, completed six innings 24 times and seven innings 14 times in his 32 starts last season. Remember when I said the Yankees were not just getting more innings, but more quality innings out of their starters in recent years? That describes Kuroda perfectly.

Both the Yankees and Kuroda have indicated they will look for ways to lighten the load on their top right-hander this summer, mostly because he’s 39 years old and has faded late in each of the last two regular seasons. How will they accomplish that? I have no idea. Maybe they won’t send him out for that one extra inning, maybe they’ll use off-days to give him extra rest, maybe they’ll do that and more. Kuroda may intentionally be turned into a 180-inning starter this year, which is still a ton of innings even if it falls short of the hallowed 200-inning plateau.

Masahiro Tanaka
After three televised Grapefruit League outings, we still don’t really know what to expect out of Tanaka this coming season. We know the scouting report and all that, but until he gets on a big league mound and pitches every fifth day in the regular season, there’s just no way to know what he can give the Yankees in 2014. He could be great, he could be awful, he could be something in between.

(via @NPBTracker)
(via @NPBTracker)

What we do know is that Tanaka was pretty durable during his time with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan, missing a little bit of time with shoulder inflammation in 2008, 2009, and 2012. Tanaka threw 212 innings last season and has averaged 203.2 innings per season over the last three years, which works out to 7.9 innings per start. That was pitching ever seventh day and not a pace he will maintain in MLB, but it shows Tanaka is used to pitching deep into the game.

The Yankees have indicated they will try to work some extra rest in for Tanaka throughout the season, and may start him in the fourth game of the season rather than the third for that very reason — an off-day means his second start would come with an extra day of rest as the number four starter rather than regular rest as the number three. Can he give the team six or so innings every time out? I hope so, but he have to see how efficient he is first. The club will try to give their new starter some extra rest here and there, but make no mistake, he’s being counting on for lots of high-end innings right away.

Ivan Nova?
It wasn’t until his sixth professional season, when he took a comebacker to the ankle in July 2011, that Nova missed a scheduled start. He was insanely durable throughout his minor league career, and he’s thrown at least 140 innings every season since 2008. Nova did miss three weeks with shoulder inflammation in 2012 and four weeks with triceps inflammation in 2013, so he’s not an ironman, but by and large he’s been an innings guy throughout his career.

The question now is whether Nova can be counted on an innings eater in 2014. It’s not just the two relatively minor arm problems the last two seasons, it’s the unpredictability of his performance as well. He’s been very up and down over the last three seasons, not an uncommon problem for a young starting pitcher. Nova’s a big guy (listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 lbs.) and his delivery seems to be pretty smooth, two traits that portend workhorseishness. Can he make the jump to become a consistent 180+ or even 200+ innings guy this season? I hope so. Nova’s is a pretty important piece of the franchise going forward and taking that next step would be a nice development.

* * *

The Yankees have said Michael Pineda will have an innings limit because, well, duh. Of course he will. The kid threw 171 innings for the Mariners a few years ago but it’s hard to think that number means anything after a major shoulder surgery and two lost years. They have to be careful and build Pineda back up slowly. In no way should he be counted on to chew up innings, even if the bullpen was taxed the night before.

David Phelps (94.1 IP), Adam Warren (77 IP), and Vidal Nuno (45 IP) all threw fewer than a hundred innings in 2013, but none of them are particularly young (Nuno is the youngest at 26) and they all have multiple 100+ inning seasons to their credit (Phelps and Warren have multiple 150+ inning seasons). I think the Yankees would let all three throw upwards of 150 innings this season, maybe more depending on how they’re performing.

Sabathia (performance), Kuroda (age), Tanaka (transition), and Nova (unpredictable) all come into the season with questions but they all have the ability to be top-notch innings guys. This isn’t some far-fetched idea either, we’re asking these guys to do something they did just last year and over the last several years as well (aside from Nova). The benefits of having durable starting pitchers is obvious and the Yankees are in line to have several of them in 2014.

Sunday Link: Breaking the language barrier with Masahiro Tanaka

Looking for some Sunday morning reading? Here’s a great piece from Jorge Arangure on Shingo Horie, Masahiro Tanaka‘s translator. Arangure goes into Horie’s background (he applied for the job despite having no translating experience), the relationship between the two men (they first met the day of Tanaka’s introductory press conference), and why Japanese players are given individual interpreters rather than sharing one. It’s really interesting stuff, so check it out. Comes with RAB’s highest level of recommendation.

2014 Season Preview: The Next Great Yankee

(Mike Carlson/Getty)
(Mike Carlson/Getty)

In more ways than one, the Masahiro Tanaka signing was the Yankees’ biggest move of the offseason. They ventured back into the big name international market for the first time since the Kei Igawa disaster and they landed a premium, 25-year-old starting pitcher. Someone who has been a workhorse and played on winning teams throughout his career. The kind of player who rarely becomes available for nothing but money, basically.

The Yankees committed a total of $175M to Tanaka back in January, giving him a seven-year contract worth $155M on top of the $20M release fee they will pay his former team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles. That contract includes an opt-out after the fourth year, but that isn’t worth worrying about or discussing right now. We’re hear to discuss what Tanaka can do right now, for the 2014 Yankees.

So far this spring we’ve had two chances to see Tanaka in action, and he was impressive both times. He threw two scoreless innings against the Phillies the weekend before last, and then last week he held that same Phillies squad to one solo homer in three innings. Tanaka has allowed just the one run on four hits and no walks in his five innings so far, striking out four and getting seven ground ball outs compared to four in the air. His third outing of the spring was a simulated game against some minor leaguers yesterday.

By all accounts, Tanaka has handled the transition well so far. He threw the first simulated game of his life yesterday, just to give you an idea of how new this all is to him. Tanaka has handled the baseball part of it well and seemingly the cultural change just fine too, though we can’t know that for sure from where we sit. I think the best thing I can say about him right now is that he’s looked very much like a veteran pitcher going about his business and getting ready for the season. He’s not trying to light up the radar gun or impress onlooker with nasty breaking balls. Tanaka has been doing what he needs to do to prepare, nothing else.

Before the Yankees landed Tanaka, I compiled this post with everything I could find on the guy. Scouting reports, statistical evaluations, video, workload questions, the whole nine. If I thought it was reliable, I put it in there. It’s everything we knew about the guy coming into Spring Training and right now we don’t know much more. The whole “number two starter pretty much right away” expectation still exists. For a jumping off point about his possible performance, here are the various projections from FanGraphs:

Tanaka Projections

Right away you see how little value the projections provide thanks to Oliver, which has Tanaka starting 39 games in 2014. I’ll bet the under on that. If he had been playing in the big leagues for a few years now, projections would have a bit more value. Because he’s coming over from Japan and changing leagues, these numbers don’t help us much. It’s pretty great to see that all of them expect him to a +3.5 WAR pitcher right away, I’d rather see than +1.0 WAR or something, but ultimately it means nothing.

There are three reasons why I think Tanaka can pretty damn successful right away for the Yankees. One, he pounds the zone. The scouting reports indicated as much and we’ve seen it so far in his two outings. Tanaka’s shown a very no nonsense approach, getting ahead in the count and not nibbling. He controls the at-bats when he’s on the mound. Two, Tanaka has two above-average offspeed pitches. We all know about the splitter …

… but he also throws a very good slider. It’s not as good as the splitter, but it’s not a show-me pitch either. Tanaka isn’t some two-pitch pitcher. Far from it.

And the third reason why I think he can be successful right away is his makeup and competitiveness, which people smarter than I have rated as through the roof. The grind of a baseball season is tough enough, but going through that grind for the first time in a new country with a new team in a new league against new batters in a new ballpark and yadda yadda yadda can be overwhelming. Does his makeup and competitive guarantee he will be successful? Of course not. But they do make me feel better about his chances.

On the other hand, there are some reasons to think Tanaka might not be so successful this season. First and foremost is the the five-day schedule rather than a seven-day setup. Tanaka had some big individual game workloads with Rakuten over the years but he also had two extra days of rest between each start. The Yankees won’t ask him to throw 130+ pitches each time out, but how will he adjust to pitching every fifth day instead of every seventh? Seems like everything is going well so far, but what happens in a few months when it’s 90 degrees with 90% humidity every start? It’s something to watch, no doubt about it.

(Mike Carlson/Getty)
(Mike Carlson/Getty)

Secondly, Tanaka likes to pitch up in the zone. That was the report coming over from Japan and he’s done it in his two spring starts so far. He had one high pitch smashed into the right-center field gap for a double and another hit out to deep right for a fly out in his last start, a ball that might have been gone in Yankee Stadium. Pitching up in the zone is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself — it’s a great way to get swings and misses — but in the Bronx more fly balls mean more homers. I don’t think Tanaka will be Phil Hughes when it comes to fly balls and dingers or anything, but the potential for the ill-timed gopher ball is there.

I don’t think there is any way we can reasonably estimate what Tanaka will do this season. Can he give the team 180 innings of 3.50 ERA ball? I’d love that in his first year in the show. The first year has typically been a transition year for recent Japanese imports with the second year being the big breakout, so I’d take that 180/3.50 performance no questions asked. Based on everything we’ve heard and the little bit we’ve seen, Tanaka has the tools to be an excellent starting pitcher in MLB. Not just good, but one of the top 20-25 pitchers in the game. There are more factors at play here than stuff and command though. The new culture and routine will affect his performance.

Given his age — Tanaka turned 25 in November, so he’ll spend the entire season at that age — the amount of money the team sunk into him, and the rest of the roster (both MLB and MiLB), I think Tanaka is the single most important player in the organization. Not necessarily for 2014, but going forward. He’s not the only one trying to make a transition, you know. The Yankees themselves are transitioning out of the dynasty years with Mariano Rivera retired and Derek Jeter following him after the season. Tanaka is the key player going forward, the young cornerstone player they can build around in the future. That’s a lot of responsibility and his first step towards becoming the next great Yankees begins this year.

GIFs: Masahiro Tanaka’s Spring Debut

Tanaka7split

As expected, Masahiro Tanaka made his Grapefruit League debut this afternoon, allowing a pair of bloop hits (on 0-2 fastballs) in two scoreless innings. He struck out three, including one on that nasty splitter above. Considering it was his first outing of the year, Tanaka looked pretty good. I’m not kidding when I say you could hear the camera clicks with every pitch.

Bunch more GIFs after the jump. Sorry about the quality, HD was in and out on MLB.tv for me.

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