The nightmare scenario has happened for the New York Yankees ... maybe. Just four starts into his 2015 season, after choosing to rehabilitate the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow, which was diagnosed as partially torn last July, Masahiro Tanaka has hit the disabled list with an injury to his pitching arm. According to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, Tanaka has been diagnosed with wrist tendonitis and a very minor strain of his forearm closer to the wrist than the elbow, but Tanaka is still expected to be out for at least a month. When asked if the injury could be a precursor to Tommy John surgery, Cashman replied, “could be.”
Tanaka pitched well in his last two starts (13 1/3 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 14 K), the most recent coming last Thursday. He got through his between-start bullpen session over the weekend without issue, but reported discomfort in his wrist Tuesday morning. A subsequent MRI revealed the forearm strain, which Cashman said wasn’t even bad enough to qualify as Grade 1. The MRI also showed no change in the condition of Tanaka’s elbow. Still, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if Tanaka’s desire to reduce strain on his elbow increased the strain further up his forearm and resulted in this injury.
Even leaving out the things this injury might tell us about the overall health of Tanaka’s arm, simply losing Tanaka for a month is a major blow for the Yankees. Since his poor outing against the Blue Jays on Opening Day, in which he did strike out six men in four innings, Tanaka had posted a 1.96 ERA in three starts, all of them Yankees wins. In his major league career as a whole, post-injury starts included, he has gone 15–6 with a 2.84 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 3.04 FIP, 5.89 strikeout-to-walk ratio and more than a strikeout per inning, with the Yankees going 17–7 (.708) in his starts. Even with the diminished velocity he had shown early this season—he is down roughly one mph on average across all his pitches save for his mid-70s curveball per BrooksBaseball.net—he has continued to be a frontline starter and no worse than the second-best pitcher in the Yankees' shaky rotation.
With CC Sabathia looking cooked at 34, Adam Warren little more than a league-average fifth starter and Nathan Eovaldi continuing to struggle to pitch up to the quality of his stuff, Tanaka and fellow fragile 26-year-old Michael Pineda are the only pitchers in the Yankee rotation who offer New York a better-than-average chance of winning any given game. With Tanaka on the shelf, the Yankees have now replaced one of those two starters with 25-year-old sophomore Chase Whitley, an utterly undistinguished righty who posted a 4.76 ERA in 12 starts for New York last year. He is likely to be just the first of a rotating cast of similarly nondescript righties should Tanaka’s absence stretch beyond the end of May.
Ivan Nova, who is rehabilitating from his own Tommy John surgery, isn’t expected back until June and is likely to be a diminished version of an inconsistent pitcher upon his initial return. Chris Capuano, who compiled a 91 ERA+ in 12 starts for the Yankees last year and was re-signed in December as rotation insurance, strained his right quadriceps early in spring training and isn’t expected back until mid-May at the earliest. Meanwhile, after Whitley, Triple A Scranton can offer only 24-year-old Bryan Mitchell, a non-prospect with just two viable pitches and a likely future in relief, before the organization starts scraping the barrel for the likes of former Royals washout Kyle Davies or cruising the waiver wire.
The Yankees do have a well-regarded rotation prospect on the farm in 21-year-old Luis Severino, who was ranked the game's 35th best prospect by Baseball America prior to the season, but he has made just nine starts above High A thus far, and the Yankees seem unlikely to rush him unless Tanaka’s timetable extends well beyond the current one-month estimate.
All of which brings us back to that lingering possibility that we’ve seen the last of Tanaka this season. It’s a leap to believe that is the case, but “no change” in his elbow would seem to suggest no improvement, no healing, as well as no further damage. As mentioned above, Cashman did not dismiss the possibility that this injury could lead to Tommy John surgery. If so, Tanaka could wind up having the surgery, which has a minimum 12-month recovery time, somewhere around 11 months after his UCL tear was initially diagnosed. The Yankees would have obtained six extra starts, just two of them quality, for having delayed, effectively losing Tanaka for two years rather than one and having his injury impact the first three seasons of his seven-year, $155 million contract.
Even if Tanaka does return from this injury on Cashman’s “conservative” one-month time table and pitches well thereafter, the Yankees will have gotten just those six starts from him in the 11 months following his initial UCL diagnosis. The difference between having had Tommy John surgery then and having opted for rehabilitation is a matter of less than two months of availability—and any delay in Tanaka’s return will eat into that figure—which makes Tanaka yet another data point in the argument against delaying Tommy John, even if he does continue to avoid the surgery.