Right-hander Masahiro Tanaka’s two-year contract with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles contained an opt-out clause this winter, but the team announced that Tanaka will return to the club in 2022 (hat tip to Yahoo Japan). Tanaka’s comeback season in NPB went well, as he posted a 3.01 ERA with a 20.19% strikeout rate and a 4.65% walk rate over 155 2/3 innings with the Eagles.
After his seven-year, $155MM contract with the Yankees expired last winter, Tanaka drew interest in the free agent market but it appeared as though his chief preferences were either to return to New York, or to head back to Japan. A reunion with the Yankees didn’t materialize, in part because the team was aiming to stay under the luxury tax threshold in 2021 and didn’t have the payroll space to fit a new Tanaka deal.
Even in his own personal announcement of his contract with the Eagles, Tanaka stated that he would be playing for the Eagles “for the 2021 season,” despite the two-year nature of his deal. With the opt-out clause in mind, there was quite a bit of speculation that Tanaka could explore a return to the majors in 2022 — with the Yankees now free of a repeated luxury tax penalty and theoretically more open to spending this winter, it again seemed plausible that Tanaka would be back pitching in the Bronx.
Then again, it has been a pretty quiet offseason for the Yankees thus far. While the Bronx Bombers have been linked to several notable free agents and trade candidates, the Yankees have yet to swing any major acquisitions. An argument could also be made that New York has plenty of rotation candidates already lined up (Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery, Nestor Cortes Jr., Luis Severino, Domingo German, Luis Gil, Clarke Schmidt, Deivi Garcia, and when healthy, Jameson Taillon), though even aside from the “you can never have too much pitching” mantra, there are enough question marks within that group that bringing in Tanaka or another established veteran makes sense.
Beyond the Yankees’ plans, however, maybe the simplest reason behind Tanaka’s decision is that he didn’t want to opt out just to enter a Major League free agent market that is currently in shutdown mode. Rather than face weeks or months of uncertainty, Tanaka will instead avoid the lockout entirely and remain a comfortable situation with the Eagles for at least one more year. 2023 will be Tanaka’s age-34 season, and if he continues to pitch like he did this past year, he should have plenty of opportunities available to him next winter in both Japan and North America.