This was several hours before Masahiro Tanaka took the mound for his 12th start, when Brian Cashman still could be hopeful the righty was ready to make a turnaround.
The question asked over the phone involved acquiring an ace on the trade market next month, and the Yankees general manager responded, “I’d like to get my ace back. If Tanaka pitches like he did last year, he is an ace.”
But Tanaka did not return to being a No. 1 starter Tuesday. He remained the Yankees’ No. 1 problem.
The Yankees have somehow held first place with Tanaka amassing the AL’s worst ERA (6.55). But how much longer will that persist? The Red Sox closed within one game of first place after becoming the latest to play Home Run Derby against Tanaka, hitting three in five innings in a 5-4 triumph.
Again absent was what made Tanaka special — elite movement with terrific finish on multiple pitches, moxie on the mound. Tanaka blamed “trying too hard” against the Red Sox, leading to him “pressing.” But his sagging body language betrays absent confidence, an inability to lasso solutions for lifeless pitches.
Cashman recently said the Yankees were in “CSI: The Bronx” mode, using video, analytics, medicals, sports science, pretty much everything at their extensive disposal to unearth exact problems and workable cures. Joe Girardi offered granular details — that the Yankees have measured to see if the height of Tanaka’s arm during his delivery or extension were off. But no clear solution has emerged.
Instead, the Yankees are 10-11 in their past 21 games, and Tanaka is 0-5 in that span with a 10.72 ERA.
Tanaka has become the Yankees’ Matt Harvey — albeit without the off-the-field concerns. But Harvey has two arm surgeries to explain why his super pitching powers have dissipated. Tanaka has endured a tiny tear in his elbow ligament for years, and he has continued to say that injury is not impeding him. The Yankees concur with Girardi citing “no lack of velocity” and enough presence of good sliders and splits to suggest, as the manager said, “Nothing says he is hurt. He is not coming into the training room for extra treatment.”
So what next then?
The only qualified starter with a worse ERA than Tanaka’s is Bartolo Colon (7.78), who on Tuesday was put on the disabled list with what the Braves called an oblique strain, but may just have been a cover story to get him off the active roster. Perhaps the Yankees can conjure a phantom injury and send Tanaka to Tampa to see if he can refine his stuff away from the bright lights, big city and games that count.
But Girardi sounded as if he plans to stick with Tanaka, who was good enough to outduel Chris Sale on April 27 in Fenway, delivering a three-hit shutout. Since then, however, he has looked like something Javier Vazquez dragged in. Tanaka is now persistently hanging sliders and splits to destructive results. He had as many swings and misses (three) as homers allowed Tuesday.
Tanaka has permitted 17 homers this season — 11 in his last five starts and 22 ²/₃ innings. His two strikeouts Tuesday tied for the second-fewest he has ever had in a start.
This from the expected stabilizer in a rotation that would have neophytes Jordan Montgomery and Luis Severino, the aging CC Sabathia and the unreliable Michael Pineda. But the others have all pitched to a better-than-league average ERA. If Tanaka were holding up his end, the Yankees would be more comfortably ahead in the AL East.
Instead, they have short-, medium- and long-term issues with Tanaka.
If the Yankees do not put him on the DL and instead decide to skip one of his starts, do they call up Chance Adams, who gave up three runs in six innings Tuesday at Triple-A to move his ERA to 2.17 or, perhaps, Domingo German if they do not want to use a 40-man roster spot yet on Adams? Again, this did not sound like Girardi’s path.
Beyond that, do they surrender top prospects to get an ace next month — if an ace is actually available — or protect those assets and continue to work to recover Tanaka as an ace?
And what happens after the season? Tanaka can opt out of the final three years at $67 million on his contract. Not long ago that would have meant losing a No. 1 starter. But now it might be a Yankees headache if he stays and what we are seeing is not Tanaka in a bad stretch, but just Tanaka.
“The guy has been the ace of our staff the last three years,” Girardi said in defense.
Still, the vibe was not good Tuesday. That once voodoo mystifying split was absent, and all that was present was further evidence Tanaka is not a No. 1 starter — just the Yankees’ No. 1 problem.