Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka Grapples With Future, Makes Final Regular Season Start Before Free Agency

Max Goodman

As Masahiro Tanaka began warming up for his final outing of the regular season on Wednesday night, his game plan against the Blue Jays wasn't the only thing on his mind. 

It had dawned on the right-hander, as he prepares to enter free agency this winter, that he was potentially in the process of making his final regular season start as a New York Yankee.

"Going into today's game, I realized that this is the last start of the regular season for me which means it would be the last start for my seven-year contract with the Yankees," Tanaka said through the Yankees' interpreter.

Since departing from Japan to play Major League Baseball, Tanaka has been a part of one organization. He and the Yankees agreed to a seven-year contract worth $155 million in 2014, a deal that's set to expire upon the conclusion of this season. 

While Tanaka will surely toe the rubber in the playoffs, likely following ace Gerrit Cole by starting in Game 2 of the opening round, the 31-year-old allowed thoughts on his future in the big leagues to creep into his mind. 

If Wednesday night was in fact his final non-postseason appearance with the Bombers, it certainly didn't go as planned. Tanaka gave up five runs (three of which were earned) while surrendering eight hits over just four frames. 

Rather than securing his third-consecutive victory, capping off an unprecedented season on a high note, Tanaka hit the showers and watched helplessly as a 5-1 deficit for New York ballooned into a 14-1 blowout defeat.

"Obviously it a tough season to say the least," he said, assessing his campaign. "It's kind of frustrating to have to end my last regular season start go this way."

READ: Yankees' Gerrit Cole Is 'Pitching His Best Baseball' Just in Time For October

After Wednesday's thrashing, Tanaka finished this summer's truncated campaign with a respectable 3.56 ERA and a record of 3-3 through 10 outings. Considering how his season began, taking a line drive off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to the side of his head in Summer Camp, the right-hander has quite a bit to be proud of.

Through Tanaka's entire career in pinstripes, he's been a model of consistency. In each season up until 2020, the Japanese hurler has won more than 10 games. He's just the second starting pitcher in franchise history, joining Andy Pettitte, to have double-digit victories in each of his first six Major League seasons.

If that's not impressive enough, Tanaka is just the fifth pitcher since 1950 to win at least 12 games through his first five seasons. The only others to accomplish such a feat are big-league legends (Pettitte, Dwight Gooden, Dennis Eckersley and Tom Seaver).

While Tanaka has been durable and reliable each season, he becomes even more potent on the mound when the postseason begins. In eight playoff starts, Tanaka has a stunning 1.76 ERA, posting a 0.783 WHIP through 46 innings pitched. 

His manager, Aaron Boone, believes that certain players are able to turn it on when it matters the most. Someone like Tanaka, in Boone's eyes, is able to slow the game down in the biggest spots, never getting overwhelmed regardless of the situation.

"I think Masa is really able to hyperfocus, I think he likes when there's more on the line and he's shown over the years that seems like the bigger the game, he's usually at his best," Boone said. "Glad we got him."

New York has Tanaka for now, set to embark on a deep playoff run in pursuit of the franchise's first championship in over a decade. The question of whether or not the Yankees will re-sign the right-hander after this season remains to be seen.

READ: Has James Paxton Thrown His Final Pitch in a Yankees Uniform?

Similar to the situation for fellow free-agent-to-be James Paxton, Tanaka's veteran presence and experience would be valuable in New York's rotation going forward. With the returns of Luis Severino and Domingo Germán next season, along with the emergence of rookies Deivi García, Mike King and Clarke Schmidt, it's possible the Bombers will deem Tanaka's services unnecessary moving forward.

Either way, Tanaka is focused on what's ahead of him. In a post on social media Wednesday night, the right-hander said that while the result of the game was "disappointing," he is eager to make the adjustments to be successful in the playoffs.

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For more from Max Goodman, follow him on Twitter @MaxTGoodman. Follow ITP on Twitter @SI_Yankees and Facebook @SIYankees