After elbow, wrist, and forearm injuries limited Masahiro Tanaka to a sub-par, by his standards, sophomore campaign with the New York Yankees, he is supposedly fully healthy this season and is ready to lead a Yankees rotation that desperately needs him back to form. Even while dealing with multiple arm injuries last season, Tanaka still managed to post an ERA of 3.51 and make twenty-four starts, more starts than his rookie year but with an ERA nearly one run higher.
The Yankees rotation struggled without their ace; none of their primary starters posted an ERA less than 4.00. The lowest ERA by a pitcher not named Tanaka was 4.20, posted by Nathan Eovaldi. The other three starters, Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, and Ivan Nova, ended 2015 with ERAs of 4.37, 4.73, and 5.07, respectively. Surprisingly, even with a bad rotation, the Yankees made the Wild Card game, thanks largely to a stellar bullpen led by Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances, who combined for a 1.77 ERA. Big years from Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and a lineup built on the long ball also helped the Yankees make the playoffs even without their best player at full strength.
Without a big year from Tanaka, another playoff berth is unlikely. The Japanese right-hander is the biggest key to the Yankees success this season. After clubbing thirty-one home runs last season Teixeira is likely to take a step back, as is Alex Rodriguez, who had thirty-three home runs and eighty-six RBI at forty years old. Last season, the Yankees had the sixth-oldest team in MLB based on average age and haven’t gotten much younger going into this season. The Yankees had more players that overachieved last season than underachieved, and with an older team, any of the Yankees core having a better 2016 campaign is less than likely.
Also working against the Yankees is the improvements the other teams in the AL East have made. The Boston Red Sox still have headaches Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez on the roster, but with a young core led by Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts and the addition of David Price, another last place finish in the division appears unlikely. Even though they lost Price to the Red Sox, the Toronto Blue Jays return much of the 2015 team that nearly reached the World Series. They still boast the same lineup that slugged its way to the AL East crown.
The Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays will both also conceivably be better. The Rays improved their lineup with the additions of Cory Dickerson and Logan Morrison, and feature a good rotation led by Chris Archer. And even though they lost out on Dexter Fowler, the Orioles also got better this offseason, adding Yovani Gallardo and Pedro Alvarez while resigning Matt Wieters and Chris Davis. Sure the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Orioles have glaring rotation weaknesses and the Rays still may struggle to score, but their improvements make it hard to see Yankee success without Tanaka brilliance.
Multiple projections have Tanaka finishing 2016 with between 150 and 200 innings, 130 to 180 strikeouts, and an ERA anywhere between 3.30-3.60. While this may fill Yankees fans with hope, a history of past arm problems still looms large for Tanaka with even arm soreness potentially leading to a DL stint. Even if he avoids injury, Tanaka will probably have to finish in the top half of projections to lead the Yankees to another October. The high-priced pitcher is definitely capable of a Cy Young type season, as he proved in his rookie year. He is just going to have to prove it again.