Masahiro Tanaka
The 2014 season has not gone according to plan for the New York Yankees. After failing to send off legendary closer Mariano Rivera with as much as measly playoff appearance in 2013, the Yankees threw their uncharacteristic financial concerns aside during the offseason¬—spending nearly a half-billion dollars to bolster the roster with most of the best available talent on the market. The last time the Yankees went on such an offseason spending spree, they signed CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett, and Mark Teixeira—all of whom proved critical in helping the Yankees christen New Yankee Stadium with their 27th World Series Championship.

Thus far, it seems it will take a miracle if 2014 is to end in the same way as 2009 did for the Bronx Bombers.

The Yankees spared no expense in bringing in established veteran stars Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian McCann, but all of them have battled significant injuries through the first half of the season and/or struggled to adjust to pressure associated with playing in New York. For a combined investment of $53 million for the 2014 season alone, the trio has produced a batting average of .243 and a combined 25 home runs and 108 RBI. Should this “production” continue over the course of the second half of the year, that projects to three players each batting below .250 while producing fewer than 17 home runs each, and driving in fewer than 75 runs—hardly worth an average salary of $17.7 million. This, of course, assumes the trio can remain healthy for the second half of the season—an assumption which ought to at best be highly questioned based on their collective track record to this point.

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The one bright spot among the Yankees’ offseason acquisitions had been Japanese rookie starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. After going 24-0 with a microscopic ERA in 2013 for the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka incited a bidding war among no fewer than a half-dozen serious Major League suitors this past offseason. In the end, the Yankees were able to secure his services for the meager investment of $155 million over seven seasons.

Initially, Tanaka seemed worth every penny. Despite surrendering a home run to the first batter he faced in a regular season Major League game (ironically to former Yankee phenom Melky Cabrera), he started the season with a jaw-dropping 11-1 record and a sub-1.5 ERA. His strike-out-to-walk ratio was equally impressive and he was considered a strong candidate for both the AL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards. Despite a sudden decline over his last four starts, he was selected to the All-Star Game. Soon after, it was revealed that he had experienced elbow discomfort in his last start on July 8.

Tanaka was immediately placed on the 15-day Disabled List and sent to Seattle to see multiple doctors who were attending a conference there. On Thursday, it was revealed that Tanaka had suffered a partially-torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament and had opted for rehab as opposed to Tommy John’s Surgery. On Friday, Tanaka released a public apology to the Yankees, his teammates, and the team’s fans.

One of Tanaka’s greatest assets through his stellar first half of 2014 has been his competitiveness. He does not throw overly hard, but even when he lacks his characteristic pin-point control, his competitive drive generally helps him keep his team in the game long enough to afford them the opportunity to win. Nobody can question Tanaka’s drive and toughness, but these qualities may wind up tainting his perspective on his injury and lead him to make a decision which ultimately hurts his team.

Tanaka’s decision to attempt to rehab his throwing elbow is brazenly foolish, immature, and frankly rather selfish. Had his MRIs and examinations revealed no concrete damage, rehab might be preferable to surgery. However, given that he knows he has sustained significant damage to his UCL, his decision seems more based on bravado than logic—thinking that his characteristic work ethic and toughness and help him avoid the heavy downtime associated with surgical repairs and put him in a position to continue his rookie campaign with the Yankees.

In reality, there seems to be nearly no chance that this decision will work out in either his or the Yankees’ collective favor. The attempt at rehab can only go a limited number of ways, none of which would seem desirable outcomes. The best-case scenario for Tanaka and the team would actually be for the injury to prove totally unresponsive to the rehab, or better-yet, worsen early and cause him to cut the attempt short. This would force Tanaka to surrender to the inevitability of Tommy John’s surgery in the relatively near future—meaning that the delay versus immediately opting for the surgical route would not be significant, and he could probably be ready to contribute early in 2016.

Were Tanaka’s symptoms to improve significantly enough over the course of his rehab to embolden an attempt at returning sometime later this season, it will likely do little more than put a large tract of the 2016 season in serious jeopardy. The elbow discomfort may improve with rest and rehab, but without proper surgical intervention, it is nearly impossible that the ligament will actually heal properly on its own. Were Tanaka to return later this season and try to pitch through this problem, his effectiveness would likely decline and he could wind up doing even more damage to his already weakened throwing arm. This could require a more extensive surgical procedure and drive the return timetable even further back—perhaps causing him to miss most of even all of 2016 as well. That’s a high price to pay for a chance at a few extra second-half wins for a team that enters the All-Star Break with a wholly mediocre record.

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The worst case scenario for both Tanaka and the Yankees would be to see him push too hard in his bid to rehab his arm and wind up doing irreparable damage. It is doubtful that the Yankees’ doctors and trainers would allow such a debacle to transpire, but with Tanaka planning to continue using the arm rather than immediately getting it repaired, such a scenario is far from an impossibility.

If Tanaka truly wants to do the best thing he can by his employers, his teammates, and his fans, he should grow up and face the music. He needs to put his toughness and personal pride aside and understand that he should not be toying with both his livelihood and the Yankees’ serious financial investment in him. The Yankees will certainly feel the loss of Tanaka for the remainder and 2014 and most or all of 2015 should he opt for Tommy John’s, but it’s vastly preferable to losing him for a longer span or perhaps losing him entirely.

It remains to be seen whether CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda will ever recover sufficiently to pitch again for the Yankees, let alone pitch effectively. Ivan Nova has always been mercurial and his potential effectiveness after returning from Tommy John’s is anyone’s guess. The Yankees may be near the .500 mark as they enter the All-Star Break and still within striking distance of the division lead, but their chances of making waves in 2014 are rather bleak. Tanaka should realize this and make the right decision, so as not to set their chances back in future years. If he does not, there may be a much more dire apology to come.

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