The Yankees received some clarity on Masahiro Tanaka’s injury status on Thursday. They were probably a bit happier in the dark.
In a briefing with the New York media during Thursday night's game against the Indians, general manager Brian Cashman said that Tanaka has a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. The Japanese right-hander saw three doctors, all of whom came back with the same diagnosis; Tanaka will receive a platelet-rich injection, and then try to start a throwing program. Immediate surgery on the ligament was not recommended, but if the 25-year-old right-hander's elbow does not improve in six weeks via rehab, he will likely need to undergo the dreaded Tommy John procedure, which would cost him the rest of 2014 and a large chunk of next season as well.
After being largely unhittable for the first three months of the season, Tanaka has shown signs of being an actual mortal in recent weeks, allowing a combined nine runs and 19 hits to the Twins and Indians in his last two outings. Following that last start in Cleveland, Tanaka complained of soreness in his pitching arm, prompting the Yankees to schedule an MRI for him and place him on the disabled list with elbow inflammation. The results of the MRI showed the damage to Tanaka's elbow, which according to Cashman had not been present in the team's initial exam of their ace's arm when they signed him in the offseason.
Tanaka's injury calls to mind the injury suffered by another top-flight New York rookie last season: Matt Harvey. The Mets' prized right-hander also suffered a partially torn UCL and at first tried to defy the odds with rest and rehab. Weeks later, however, Harvey underwent Tommy John surgery, which has cost him the entire 2014 season to date.
Tanaka's injury is a huge blow for the Yankees, who are currently 46-45 and four games behind the Orioles for first place in the AL East. In games not started by Tanaka, New York is 33-39, good for a .458 winning percentage — in other words, in games started by anyone but Tanaka, the Yankees are the Padres. What’s more, the team does not have the sort of assets in its farm system to go out and acquire a big-time starting pitcher. The Yankees can already forget about David Price and Cliff Lee, the only potentially available pitchers who could even come close to doing for them what Tanaka has thus far this season.
Tanaka was 12-4 with a 2.51 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 135 strikeouts in 129 1/3 innings in his first season in the U.S. after signing a seven-year, $155 million contract. With Tanaka joining CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova (also done for the year due to Tommy John surgery) and Michael Pineda on the DL, the Yankees will go forward with a rotation of Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon McCarthy, Chase Whitley and David Phelps, with recent call-up Shane Greene currently filling the fifth spot.