When Masahiro Tanaka was asked in early February if he was considering opting out of his seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yankees this upcoming offseason, his answer wasn’t a no. But it also wasn’t a yes.
Instead, he told reporters that his future in New York wasn’t on his mind, and that his goal was to focus solely on the 2017 campaign. “When the time comes after the season, then I’ll probably have a chance to think about that more,” Tanaka said.
Well, that was the safe answer. And probably the right answer. But the time for Tanaka to weigh his options as a major league starter has come slightly ahead of schedule, and quite frankly, he can blame himself for that.
Matched up against Houston Astros’ ace Dallas Keuchel in a pivotal Game 5 of the ALCS, Tanaka glistened under the Yankee Stadium lights, tossing seven shutout innings with eight strikeouts and just three hits en route to the Yankees’ imposing 5-0 win. Indebted to Tanaka’s stellar peformance, the club will return to Houston’s Minute Maid Park on Friday night with a commanding 3-2 series lead, one win shy of reaching their first World Series since 2009.
“I wasn’t actually limiting to any particular pitches. All I had in mind was just go out there and be aggressive, that’s it,” Tanaka told FOX’s Ken Rosenthal via his translator after the game. “To be honest, I didn’t really imagine anything like this while I was in Japan. But it’s been great. I’m really happy to able to pitch in a game like this and do what I did tonight.”
This October, Tanaka has thrived. In three postseason starts, his ERA sits at 0.90, as he’s allowed only 10 hits, two runs, and three walks in 20 total innings. He’s also struck out 18, and the Cleveland Indians and Astros combined to hit .145 against him. Tanaka has reached his professional pinnacle, and considering how topsy-turvy and underwhelming his regular season was, it’s come as quite a surprise.
And so Tanaka’s left with a multi-million dollar decision: Should he stay in New York for the next three seasons and earn $67 million along the way, or test the free agent market and hope to receive a fresh, new multi-year deal worth nine figures? Talk about temptation. Talk about a high-end problem.
Now flashback to late September, and try to recall where Tanaka was parked. Before his final regular season outing (in which he tossed seven shutout innings against the Blue Jays, ironically), he had allowed a combined 16 runs and 22 hits in three consecutive starts. Regardless of how he felt, the mere notion of walking away from guaranteed money seemed like a foolish business decision. After all, he ended the year with a 13-12 record and a career-high 4.74 ERA. What team would roll the dice and pay top dollar for those numbers?
So much for that, it seems, as Tanaka has re-emerged as the ace he once was — the ace that the Yankees paid and expected him to be all along. A soon-to-be 29-year-old righty with an exceptional arsenal of pitches, fully equipped to conquer the tension and triumph this game offers in the midst of fall foliage.
For the Yankees, perhaps this moment is bitter-sweet. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed clear that Tanaka was going to remain as a fixture in the rotation. But now the franchise might save some big bucks, and next winter, they could potentially invest that $67 million in some high-ticket items (i.e. Bryce Harper, Manny Machado) on sale. Of course, that’s unless the Yankees are hoping Tanaka sticks around, and if he does want to, would the franchise actually bulk up and re-sign him for more money if he still walks?
Either way, Tanaka has the leverage here, and regardless of what the scenario may be, foregoing that $67 million is the smartest move Tanaka can make in the coming weeks. After all, he’s certainly earned that right.