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Masahiro Tanaka Rumors
Angels manager Mike Scioscia announced to reporters today that Tyler Skaggs underwent successful Tommy John surgery this afternoon. News of Skaggs’ injury first broke on Sunday afternoon. While the Halos have yet to make a move to address the void in their rotation, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them make some kind of waiver transaction in the next two to three weeks. Skaggs is expected to be out until 2016, Scioscia said on Sunday.
Here’s more on some injury notes from around the league…
- The Rangers announced tonight that ace Yu Darvish has been placed on the 15-day disabled list (retroactive to Sunday) due to inflammation in his right elbow. Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News writes that Darvish will undergo further testing in the next day or two. Darvish apparently felt tightness when playing catch on Monday, and the discomfort failed to dissipate prior to a scheduled bullpen session on Tuesday. GM Jon Daniels tells reporters, including Grant (Twitter link), that doctors do not believe there is any ligament damage in the elbow. Anthony Andro of FOX Sports Southwest tweets that team doctor Keith Meister feels that Darvish may be suffering from pronator flexor tendinitis. Darvish will undergo an MRI tomorrow, and in the meantime, the Rangers have selected the contract of right-hander Alex Claudio to take his roster spot. Daniels says the team is hopeful that Darvish will only miss two starts.
- Injured Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka threw fastballs from flat ground today — a step forward from playing catch — tweets MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch. Tanaka feels that he still has a chance to pitch in a Major League game again this season. Skipper Joe Girardi told reporters, including Brendan Prunty of the Star-Ledger, that the team also has hope that Tanaka is not lost for the year.
- Yet another pitcher has fallen prey to the Tommy John scourge, as Bill Shaikin of the L.A. Times tweets that Dodgers righty Stephen Fife will undergo the procedure. Fife, who started 10 games for the Dodgers last year and one this season, has a 3.66 ERA in 91 Major League innings over the past three seasons. It seems likely that the 27-year-old would miss most, if not all of the 2015 campaign.
The Yankees’ playoff chances may hinge on a game of catch that will take place today at Yankee Stadium. General manager Brian Cashman confirmed to George A. King III of the New York Post that Masahiro Tanaka will throw today for the first time since a slight UCL tear was discovered in the righty’s throwing elbow. If Tanaka feels good after his session, he’ll continue his rehab process with an eye towards a return in September. If he doesn’t feel right, Tanaka may have to undergo Tommy John surgery and could be in jeopardy of missing the entire 2015 season.
Here’s some more about the Bronx Bombers…
- The trainer for Christopher Torres, a 16-year-old Dominican shortstop, made a complaint to the commissioner’s office claiming the Yankees backed out of an agreed-upon $2.1MM bonus with the youngster, Baseball America’s Ben Badler reports. The Yankees claim no deal was ever reached, while Torres’ trainer says that by not informing Torres of their decision until June, the shortstop was left unsigned with no teams had room left in their international budget. Badler goes into great detail about the case and the gray area created when teams agree to sign international players months in advance of the July 2 signing period, which is against MLB rules but is very common around the league.
- The Phillies asked for Aaron Judge in exchange for Marlon Byrd, according to Bill Madden of the New York Daily News. Needless to say, the Yankees balked at giving up Judge, who was drafted 32nd overall in 2013 and is ranked by MLB.com as the fifth-best prospect in the Yankees’ farm system.
- With the Yankees struggling at the plate and facing questions at third base and DH for 2015, Newsday’s David Lennon writes that Alex Rodriguez would’ve been a useful piece on the roster right now. Had A-Rod worked out a 125-150 game suspension last August instead of appealing and ending up suspended for all of 2014, he would already have been eligible to return, Lennon notes.
- Also from King’s piece, Rusney Castillo‘s private workout with the Yankees will take place on Friday. The Cuban outfielder also has an upcoming session with the Mariners, and he has already worked out for the Phillies and Red Sox. King hears from sources that Castillo could sign for between $35-45MM, which is a step up from the $25-35MM we last heard was Castillo’s likely price range, though given the heavy interest in his services and the big-market teams involved, it isn’t surprising his price tag is going up.
TODAY: Dr. James Andrews was also consulted on Tanaka’s elbow, and concurred with the other three doctors that rehab was the appropriate action at this point, reports Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com (via Twitter).
YESTERDAY: Yankees general manager Brian Cashman gave reporters devastating news today, as he revealed that Masahiro Tanaka has a slight tear in the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, and Tommy John surgery is possible (All Twitter links to Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News). Tanaka was examined by three doctors, all of whom confirmed the tear. For now, a platelet rich plasma injection is being recommended, and the Yankees are hopeful that he can return in six weeks’ time.
Cashman stressed that this is a slight tear, Feinsand tweets, and if the immediate recommendation had been Tommy John surgery, Tanaka would be undergoing the operation. It’s not unheard of for pitchers to throw with slightly torn UCLs, Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports notes (on Twitter). Adam Wainwright did just that for nearly five years, he notes, and Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star tweets that Luke Hochevar did the same. Ervin Santana is another example of a pitcher who has successfully avoided Tommy John despite a UCL tear. Still, this is highly disheartening news for the Yankees, and those pitchers’ circumstances are the exception, not the rule.
Even with the likes of Cliff Lee, David Price and Cole Hamels potentially on the trade market, it’s unlikely that any acquisition could replace the brilliant performance that Tanaka has turned in to this point in the season (and, the Yankees likely don’t have the prospects to acquire those big names anyhow).
Three months into his seven-year, $155MM contract — a contract he signed after undergoing an MRI that showed his UCL was intact, Cashman notes (via Feinsand) — Tanaka has a masterful 2.51 ERA with 9.4 K/9, 1.3 BB/9 and a 45.9 percent ground-ball rate. That’s good for 3.2 fWAR and 4.1 rWAR, and those numbers would be even better if his two most recent starts (which may or may not have been impacted by the injury) were thrown out. Tanaka allowed nine runs in 13 2/3 innings over those two contests but had a 2.10 ERA in 115 2/3 innings prior.
As far as the Yankees’ approach at this year’s deadline, Cashman said that he will continue to be aggressive unless he is told otherwise (link). The Yankees have already acquired Brandon McCarthy from the Diamondbacks and were expected to pursue infield upgrades and potentially some further pitching help. Cashman likely wouldn’t concede to selling right off the bat anyway, however, and it’s difficult to see the Yankees making a sustained run if they end up losing Tanaka, CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova for the season.
Last night, the Yankees revealed that ace Masahiro Tanaka has a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The current plan is for Tanaka to receive a platelet-rich plasma injection on Monday and then rehab, with the hope being that he can avoid surgery and be back in roughly six weeks. However, the Yankees were forced to acknowledge that Tommy John surgery is at least a possibility for their $175MM hurler. Here are some reactions from around the league, as well as some speculation as to how this will impact the remainder of their season…
- Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports wonders when baseball will ever get all 30 teams on the same page in an attempt to remedy what is becoming an epidemic. The problem could be better tackled if all 30 clubs worked in conjunction with the Commissioner’s Office to research the problem from all angles and determine some kind of preventative tactics for future generations. Instead, as Yankees president Randy Levine put it last month: “Teams are hesitant to invest because they think they’re going to seed the money and then everyone is going to share in the information. We’re all too selfish to do it.”
- Jon Paul Morosi of FOX Sports references a meta-analysis from the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews this past April which concluded that there is “insufficient evidence to support the use” of PRP injections to treat soft-tissue injuries. He points out that Chad Billingsley had a PRP injection to try to alleviate a partial tear, wound up having Tommy John anyhow, and has pitched two Major League games in the past 22 months.
- Also from Morosi’s piece, he feels that the Yankees should make the bold move to acquire Cole Hamels from the Phillies. While the team is light on prospects, the Yankees could sweeten the deal by agreeing to take on the contracts of both Jonathan Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins, Morosi speculates. Acquiring Hamels provides cost certainty in the rotation that the Bombers simply couldn’t secure with offseason pursuits of Max Scherzer or Jon Lester.
- Hiroki Kuroda, David Robertson and even Dellin Betances are pieces the Yankees could theoretically look to move this month if the team does indeed become sellers, writes Joel Sherman of the New York Post. While Sherman himself isn’t advocating a trade of Betances, he’s heard from a surprising number of executives that the Yankees should market their setup ace while his value is perhaps at its all-time highest. Relievers are a volatile commodity, and they could land a long-term infield piece in the deal. As for Kuroda, he has a no-trade clause but could conceivably waive it to move closer to his family in Southern California. This is my own speculation, but the team could also look to flip the recently acquired Brandon McCarthy to another club as well.
- Mets ace Matt Harvey spoke to reporters, including MLB.com’s Tim Healy, and weighed in on the news. “It’s an unfortunate thing that you don’t want to see, especially with how much success he’s had in his first year,” said Harvey. “It’s a sad thing. It’s something as a competitive pitcher, you want those guys around. It’s unfortunate that all these are happening. But if you look at the bright side, they’re all kind of happening at the same time. Hopefully we’ll all return at the same time.” Harvey, who went through a partial UCL tear himself before ultimately electing surgery, also discussed his own decision-making process.
- Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News runs down a list of possible trade targets the Yankees could pursue in the wake of the injury. Feinsand offers a similar line of thinking to Morosi, only his speculation is in regards to Cliff Lee; Feinsand wonders if the Yankees could get away with offering a lesser prospect package for Lee if they agreed to take on the entirety of the roughly $50MM Lee is still owed. He also lists Jorge De La Rosa and former Yankee Ian Kennedy, among others.
The Yankees have officially placed right-hander Masahiro Tanaka on the disabled list with what they’ve termed right elbow inflammation for the time being. The Rookie of the Year/Cy Young contender has been arguably the most valuable player on the Yankees this season, and an extended absence would seriously dampen the Yankees’ postseason hopes. Currently, the team sits four games out of first in the AL East and three and a half games out of the running for a Wild Card spot, despite having spent most of the season without CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda.
Here’s more on the Yankees and the Mets…
- The Yankees’ entire season is hanging in balance as the team waits to learn the severity of Tanaka’s injury, writes Joel Sherman of the New York Post. In the event of a serious injury to Tanaka, he opines, the Yankees will have to give serious consideration to selling off at the deadline. Sherman discusses the trickle-down effect that such an injury would have on the team, noting that Yankee starters have recorded just 33 outs after the seventh inning this season — and 25 of those have come from Tanaka. His absence would further strain an overworked bullpen, and the team lacks enough quality internal rotation options to survive such a blow.
- Andy Martino of the New York Daily News gets the sense that the Mets are likely to move Bartolo Colon this summer but may hold on to the rest of their regulars. The team wants to contend in 2015, he says, and they feel they have the pitching depth to make up for the loss of Colon. Others, such as Daniel Murphy, would not be so easily replaced. Additionally, trading Colon would free up $10MM in payroll for next season, which could be reallocated to fill other needs.
- New Yankees pitcher Brandon McCarthy told reporters, including Dan Barbarisi of the Wall Street Journal, that he doesn’t feel that he’s having a bad year, but rather, a confusing year. McCarthy, who has a 5.01 ERA, explains that he’s well-versed in sabermetrics and knows that based on career-bests in strikeout rate, ground-ball rate and average fastball velocity, he’s doing things right. “I know there’s been mistake pitches here and there that get hurt, but that’s to be expected,” said McCarthy. “It’s the other things happening, where I leave a game and feel like I’ve done everything I needed to and the results are terrible. That’s where I’ve been kind of confused.” Barbarisi’s piece also looks at how McCarthy re-invented himself after delving into sabermetrics while recovering from a shoulder injury in 2010.
The Red Sox were within $5MM of the final bidding (six years, $68MM) for now-White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, reports Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald. Interestingly, Boston felt that Abreu could be used across the diamond at third base. Chicago GM Rick Hahn said that, in learning more about the bidding after landing Abreu, “it turns out there were several teams, not just us and Boston, that were awfully aggressive and pretty close to where we were at the end.” As things stand, it looks like Hahn made the right choice to outbid that dense market.
Here’s more from Boston and the rest of the AL East:
- Prized Yankees hurler Masahiro Tanaka is set to undergo an MRI on his right arm, reports George A. King III of the New York Post. Made available by his Japanese club in December, the righty inked a seven-year, $155MM contract (with an opt-out after four seasons). He has been outstanding, compiling a 2.51 ERA with 9.4 K/9 against just 1.3 BB/9 in 129 1/3 frames, but has recently worked through two rough starts. After his most recent outing, he reported “a little discomfort,” according to a tweet from Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com.
- For now, the situation warrants close attention, though it would be unwise to jump to conclusions. Obviously, a layoff of any significant duration would have critical implications for a New York club that has relied heavily on the 25-year-old, who has notched a league-leading 12 wins. The club has called up outfielder Zoilo Almonte but has yet to announce a corresponding roster move, leading Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News to suggest (via Twitter) that the Yankees could be waiting to learn more about Tanaka’s status before acting.
- The Red Sox are having ongoing “conversations” that may result in a new, increased offer to lefty Jon Lester, reports ESPNBoston.com’s Gordon Edes. Boston should — and probably will — reach an extension with Lester, opines Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe. At various points, the on-again/off-again talks have variously made a deal seem close and free agency appear inevitable. Abraham ticks through the reasons that keeping Lester in Boston makes good sense for both sides.
- Meanwhile, the club may be close to making some kind of change behind the plate, according to a tweet from Abraham. Veteran A.J. Pierzynski has scuffled to a .254/.286/.348 line in 274 plate appearances after joining the Red Sox on a one-year, $8.25MM deal. While he might appeal to some contenders, that contract means that Boston would likely need to eat some cash to get any kind of return. Well-regarded prospect Christian Vazquez is waiting in the wings at Triple-A, and could be given a taste of MLB action.
- Mired in last place in the division, Boston is highly likely to sell, but there are many permutations that could take. Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal takes a look at the possible chips and names their likeliest suitors. While rumors reached crescendo without a deal yesterday, MacPherson still sees the Cardinals as a good fit for Jake Peavy. He goes on to name several players with potential matches: outfielder Jonny Gomes (Mariners), Pierzynski (Pirates), Koji Uehara (Orioles, Tigers, Angels, Pirates), and shortstop Stephen Drew (Tigers, Brewers) as other possibilities to be flipped.
- In yet another reminder of how quickly things can change, the Blue Jays now seem to have a greater need in their lineup than the rotation, writes Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet.ca. A right-handed hitting second or third baseman, right-handed outfield bat, and potentially a catching upgrade all rate as areas to explore, according to Nicholson-Smith. The team could stand to add a starter if an impact arm could be had for a reasonable price, he adds, and may also look to pick up a righty for the pen.
- One possibility for the Blue Jays could be Chase Headley of the Padres, with Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reporting on Twitter that the two clubs have had discussions on the third baseman. Headley is a switch-hitter, which would open up some flexibility for the Jays. On the other hand, he has generally been more successful against righties, reducing the utility of playing him in some form of a platoon with the righty-mashing Juan Francisco.
- The Yankees are going to go for it, but should not gut the farm to do so, writes Joel Sherman of the New York Post. Sherman says that the Brandon McCarthy acquisition was a good model, because it did not require the sacrifice of a player with a significant part in the club’s future plans, and that the organization can always utilize its unmatched financial capacity to add talented players on big contracts. But with a roster that looks to have a less-than-even chance to take the division, says Sherman, the organization’s best minor league pieces should not be sacrificed for pure rentals.
- Implicit in the above notes, I would suggest, is that the Orioles may have an unmatched window to make a run at the division. The Rays and Red Sox probably have too much ground to gain, the Yankees don’t look to have the youth or across-the-board talent, and the Blue Jays have faded quickly of late. While the loss of Matt Wieters certainly hurts, the Orioles look like they could be the odds-on favorite. Should the club move to bolster its chances with a mid-season addition or two, it could easily achieve bottom-line impact because it has two positions ripe for upgrade in second base and catcher. Of course, a rotation acquisition may also make sense. While Baltimore will surely be loath to do so, it does have a relative abundance of high-end young pitching to deal from.
Happy birthday to the legendary Yogi Berra, who turns 89 years old today. Arguably the greatest catcher in baseball history, Berra won three AL MVP Awards and 10 World Series titles in 18 seasons with the Yankees, plus he added three more Series rings as a coach with the Yankees and Mets. Here’s the latest from around the AL East…
- There’s still time for the Rays to turn things around, but if their early-season struggles continue, FOX Sports’ Jon Paul Morosi wonders if the club will be forced to trade David Price. Beyond just adding some needed minor league talent to the Rays’ system, a Price trade could have an even larger impact on the franchise as Morosi wonders if owner Stuart Sternberg would explore selling the team if faced with going through a rebuilding phase.
- At age 30, Jon Lester is on pace for the best season of his career, which WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford notes is another example of how ace pitchers often take years to fully master their craft. As such, it could take years for any of the young arms in the Red Sox farm system to be able to replace Lester should the southpaw leave Boston in free agency this winter.
- Masahiro Tanaka has been an instant hit as a Yankee, which even came as a bit of a surprise to Brian Cashman, the general manager told CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman. “I would have expected a transition to some degree. You always expect a transition period coming to New York, even if it’s just coming from another city (in MLB). Here, he’s coming from Japan, where they have a different pitching schedule and different travel,” Cashman said. Tanaka has exceeded expectations thus far in his first exposure to American baseball, as Cashman noted that the Yankees only projected Tanaka as “a solid No. 3” starter who could possibly be a No. 2.
It's been a slow day throughout baseball, but there's been at least one very interesting development. At the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston today, MLB Advanced Media presented a new plan to measure new aspects of each play and connect various pieces of data to find out why each play turned out the way it did. For example, on a ball hit to the outfield, MLBAM will track not only the trajectory of the ball, but also the timing of the outfielder's first step and the efficiency of his route. The technology will also allow teams to connect hitting, pitching, baserunning and fielding data.
Details of the system have appeared on Twitter throughout the day, but MLB.com's Mark Newman explains the system more thoroughly in a long-form article. (When you click on the article, be sure to check out the video showing an example of the data the system will track.) The system appears likely to impact analysis of all aspects of the game, but it will most obviously impact analysis of fielding. "Just on the field, with the coaching staff and the manager — when you start to look at positioning, and you start to see the exit velocity of the ball coming off the bat, and is he late or is he ahead of a lot of pitches, and then you move your infielders and outfielders accordingly," MLB.com's Jim Duquette says. The data appears likely to have a significant impact on player valuation throughout the game. The data will be collected at Brewers, Twins and Mets home games in 2014, and then the system will launch in all other ballparks in 2015. Here are more notes from around the Majors.
- Masahiro Tanaka made his spring debut with the Yankees today, pitching two scoreless innings and allowing two hits against the Phillies. Even Tanaka's first spring appearance was a major news event, given that Tanaka was the Yankees' highest-profile signing in an offseason filled with high-profile Yankees signings. Three Japanese television channels broadcast the game, which also included Hiroki Kuroda and Ichiro Suzuki. David Waldstein of the New York Times notes that Tanaka's fastball came in at 94 MPH.
- The White Sox have signed 24 pre-arbitration eligible players to one-year deals, Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times tweets. Starting pitcher Jose Quintana, who posted a 3.51 ERA with 7.4 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 in 200 innings in 2013, received a $50K raise to $550K, and reliever Nate Jones got a $37K raise to $545K.
In his column last night, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe discussed several matters concerning the American League East. From a transactional perspective, Cafardo says not to be surprised if David Ortiz asks the Red Sox to break the $20MM barrier in adding a year to his current contract. Here's more from the AL East:
- Early returns on Red Sox outfielder Grady Sizemore are positive, reports Jason Mastrodonato of MassLive.com. Hitting coach Gregg Colbrunn said that his swing has "all the good things you look for" in spite of his long layoff, while manager John Farrell said that Sizmore has been at "full speed" on the bases and in the field. Of course, notes Mastrodonato, the club has maintained that it is mostly focused on gauging whether Sizemore can maintain his health over a draining season.
- We heard earlier today that the Orioles have approached J.J. Hardy about opening extension talks. From Hardy's perspective, the shortstop tells ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, he still has not heard much about how things might shape up. "I don't know how that will all play out," Hardy said. "We'll see. I'm actually going to meet with my agent. And we're going to talk a litle bit about what could happen. And he'll kind of fill me in … because I don't really know much."
- Rays GM Andrew Friedman covered a variety of topics on the MLB Network Hot Stove show (transcript via Cork Gaines of Rays Index). Friedman said that the club still feels it will be tough to hold onto ace David Price for the long haul, but that its "mindset is to enjoy each and every day we have David here and do everything in our power to continue that relationship." The likely ultimate scenario — a trade — could take any form, explained the Tampa GM, whose assessment of the Price situation reflects the franchise's general operating strategy. "[W]e really can't have any hard and fast rules about anything," said Friedman. "So we have to be really prepared and nimble. The more prepared you are, the easier it is for you to react more quickly when things pop up. And that's what we have to do is to remain very fluid and not ever get into a situation where we have to make a certain move. But to continue to kind of assess the market and figure out when things kind of line up in our time horizon of what makes the most sense for us to sustain success."
- While the Yankees' money surely played a substantial role in landing Masahiro Tanaka, the club did not just rely on making the highest offer, reports Brandon Kuty of the Star-Ledger. With Pacific advisor George Rose leading the charge, the Yanks put together a series of gestures intended to convince him of their longstanding interest in Tanaka and overall experience with Japanese ballplayers.
Though he's yet to throw a pitch in the Major Leagues, the Yankees committed a massive $175MM to sign 25-year-old righty Masahiro Tanaka in January. $20MM of that went to his old team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, with $155MM going to Tanaka. Tanaka's contract is the third-largest ever for a pitcher in MLB history, topped only by Clayton Kershaw's new extension with the Dodgers and C.C. Sabathia's 2008 free agent deal with the Yankees. Like those deals, Tanaka's includes an opt-out clause.
Tanaka comes to MLB for the 2014 season after posting what many scouts refer to as "video game numbers" in Japan last year: a 24-0 record and a 1.27 ERA in 212 innings. Last Friday, Yankees GM Brian Cashman did his best to temper expectations for Tanaka in a conversation with ESPN's Ian O'Connor. Cashman said he expects the pitcher to have growing pains in the States, and asked his ultimate upside two or three years down the road, the GM said Tanaka "has the potential to be a really solid consistent number three starter." Free agent salaries continue to rise, but I don't think the Yankees would spend that kind of money on a pitcher they thought might become a number three a year or two before his opt-out clause comes up.
Unbiased opinions were needed. To get a feel for Tanaka's repertoire and approach, injury risk, and overall ability, I spoke to high-ranking officials with scouting-related positions for four MLB teams (referred to simply as "scouts" later in this article). Each has seen the pitcher in person extensively, and none work for the Yankees.
Before we begin, here is a refresher on the 20-80 (or 2-8) scouting scale from Kevin Goldstein, formerly of Baseball Prospectus: "A score of 50 is major-league average, 60 is above-average (also referred to as "plus"), and 70 is among the best ("plus-plus"). 80 is top of the charts, and not a score that gets thrown around liberally." For more information on scouting pitchers from Goldstein, click here.
Scouting Report: Three Plus Pitches
Tanaka's fastball typically sits between 91-93 miles per hour, with the ability to touch 96 mph. Most of the scouts to whom I spoke graded his fastball as a 6, or plus, though one put a 70 on the heater. One scout praised his fastball in saying he throws a "heavy ball," though two others noted the pitch can get flat or straight at times. One of those two said Tanaka's fastball is "probably his most hittable pitch, in a way."
Scouts agreed Tanaka has a second or third gear for his fastball. In Japan he'd often be in "cruise control" for the first half of the game, ramping his fastball up into the mid-90s later if he needed to. Noted one scout who loves Tanaka, "When they're in Japan, they don't have to throw their best stuff because the league's not as good." That figures to change for Tanaka in MLB, given the deeper lineups.
Tanaka clearly had plus-plus control in Japan, with walk rates below two per nine innings in each of the last four seasons. Scouts feel that will translate to plus in the States. Grading Tanaka's command, one scout said "60 or 70," another went with 55, and one gave a 5. The most pessimistic scout elaborated, "I actually thought with the offspeed stuff, the splitter and the slider especially, I thought there was more command of those pitches. And I thought with the fastball he definitely threw strikes to an above average level but I thought the command, pinpointing it, was just average." When Tanaka does get into trouble in MLB, there's a good chance it will be the result of throwing hittable fastballs.
Next is Tanaka's splitter, by most accounts a nasty pitch. One scout put an 8 on it, suggesting if you don't put an 8 on this particular pitch, then you might be the type who never gives out 8s. He explained, "It's not a tumbling pitch. It's more of a disappearing fastball. It's not a Contreras splitter that comes out and kind of flutters." Two others put 7s on the splitter, though one dissented with a 6. That person admitted the split "could be plus-plus," but unlike his peers, he feels Tanaka's best pitch is his slider.
The lone scout who prefers the slider explained, "I think it's a true slider with a good tilt, he would get depth to it more than ones that are plus-plus." He feels the slider has a slight lead over the splitter, noting the slider has been Tanaka's pitch since his high school days. With the other scouts, Tanaka's slider received a 6 across the board.
It is generally agreed that Tanaka's fastball, splitter, and slider are plus pitches, and he'll get strikeouts with each. For a change of pace, he also throws a slow curveball, described by one scout as "useful." This pitch grades in the 45-50 range. Tanaka's ability to throw this pitch for strikes allows him to pitch backward if he chooses. Typically, though, Tanaka's approach is aggressive, as one scout explained: "He pitches inside, he doesn't pitch away from contact a lot. Some guys in Japan, they're not as aggressive. He has more of a Western style that he's not afraid to go up and in, he's not afraid to pitch inside. He pitches kind of with a little chip on his shoulder."
Reduced Strikeout Rate: Red Flag?
Though he posted a 1.27 ERA, Tanaka struck out only 7.8 batters per nine innings last year in Japan. That mark was his lowest since 2010. While one scout admitted, "It's certainly not a positive," all agreed the reduced strikeout rate is not a cause for concern. Explained another, "He's the type of guy that if he wants to, he can go out and strike out hitters. He's a brilliant, smart pitcher and he's not afraid to pitch to contact. I saw him doing that a lot that last couple years. That's one of the reasons he was able to stay efficient with his pitch counts." Throw in MLB lineups that are much more prone to swinging and missing, and there's good reason to believe Tanaka will whiff more than 7.8 per nine in 2014.
Heavy Workload: Cause For Concern?
In December, multiple MLB executives expressed concern to Yahoo's Jeff Passan regarding Tanaka's high pitch counts. The righty averaged about 110 pitches per regular season start in 2013, with seven outings in excess of 122 and a high of 136. Most famously, Tanaka threw 160 pitches in a Japan Series game and another 15 the next day in relief. In total, he threw 1,315 innings through his age-24 season, which hasn't happened in the Majors since the mid-70s, according to SI's Tom Verducci. Perhaps the GMs and owners calling the shots were worried about Tanaka's high pitch counts, but most of the scouts we talked to brushed it off.
"He's been trained for that his entire life," remarked one. Another noted his durable, solid body and suggested he's someone who might be able to handle throwing a lot of pitches. One scout noted that while it's obviously not a great idea to throw 160 pitches in a game, Japanese pitchers typically get six or seven days rest between starts, making the total mileage similar to MLB starters. None of the four feel that Tanaka's injury risk exceeds that of a typical MLB starter. Keep in mind, however, that the chance of going on the disabled list for the average MLB starter is around 39% for 2014, based on research from Jeff Zimmerman for FanGraphs.
Tanaka's Overall Projection
In a tweet last month, Joel Sherman of the New York Post said the comparables he's heard most often for Tanaka are Hiroki Kuroda and prime-age Dan Haren, plus reliever Bryan Harvey for his splitter. One scout agreed with the Haren comp, noting that Tanaka has more arm strength. Others cited Zack Greinke and Matt Cain.
In terms of placing an overall grade on Tanaka, opinions ranged, but all were quite positive. One scout, who admitted being "toward the higher end of the spectrum," described Tanaka as a number one starter, without hesitation. He expects Tanaka to contend for the Cy Young, and feels he'll be one of the ten best starting pitchers in MLB in 2014.
The other three scouts placed Tanaka in a slightly lower tier, ranking him in the #15-25 range among all MLB starters for 2014. Two of them described him as a number two starter.
The mystery of how Tanaka will perform in Major League Baseball should be resolved in short order. He'll face MLB hitters in Spring Training later this month, and could have a bit of a soft landing with the Yankees' first three regular season games coming in Houston in early April.