- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Somebody wearing a uniform undoubtedly uttered the words "I told you so" on Wednesday night after news of Tanaka's elbow issue spread across the majors, and it's very possible that this was a four-word refrain in a lot of clubhouses. That four-word refrain would only be repeated on Thursday night when the league learned that Tanaka had a partial UCL tear in his elbow, an injury that often leads to Tommy John surgery. That's because over the first two months of this season, even as Tanaka dominated hitters and earned the respect of opponents, there was a feeling among many players on other teams that it was only a matter of time before he broke down.
That opinion was not based on his daunting accumulation of pitches in Japan, where he threw 160 pitches in a start last fall before pitching in relief the next day. Rather, opposing hitters and pitchers and coaches and managers watched him throw splitter after splitter after splitter at high velocity, and they reached the conclusion that he was destined for surgery.
For now, the Yankees are saying that Tanaka has a chance to rehab the injury. But if surgery is needed, there will be a lot of nods around the game, because the perception of the splitter is that it's an elbow-killer, and Tanaka relied so heavily on the pitch in his first days in the big leagues. In fact, according to Fangraphs, 25 percent of the pitches thrown by Tanaka this season have been splitters, easily the highest in the majors.
Percentage of splitters thrown
Among the pitchers who employ the splitter as a major weapon, Tanaka also has thrown it at the highest velocity, 86 mph.
The day after Tanaka beat the Red Sox on April 22, David Ortiz mentioned around the batting cage that he had never seen a pitcher throw that many splitters; Jonny Gomes, standing nearby, nodded. And every time teams saw Tanaka, this became part of what they took away. He's incredibly talented, many opponents would say privately, and competitive, and has a great feel for the baseball. And wow, he throws a lot of splitters.
Tanaka's durability was the greatest concern that teams (including the Yankees) had about him in the midst of the bidding last winter. But now that the Yankees have invested $175 million in him, that question is largely irrelevant in 2014; either he's done or he's not, and with or without their most important player, they have 2 1/2 months of the season remaining.
Playing without Tanaka the rest of the way would make it difficult for them to win, of course. But they are not built to quit; they are not conditioned to think about being midsummer sellers, and Brian Cashman has stated in the wake of the injury that his team will remain aggressive. But there is good reason to doubt any conclusion that says the Yankees' brass will be willing to sell off too much of the future for an immediate future that looks more and more bleak.
The Yankees haven't held a fire sale since George Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973, and it's hard to imagine them deciding that this would be the year to trade off assets midsummer, given all the money they spent last winter on Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and others, and given all that is at stake for them in television revenue.
The Yankees already were looking for another starting pitcher before Tanaka got hurt, and they'll probably be looking even harder now. They've got some prospects to offer, if they choose to, whether it's catcher John Ryan Murphy or the hard-throwing Luis Severino, but they're probably better off looking for a deal in which their primary cost is dollars. The more money they take on in salary, the less they would have to surrender in prospects from an already-thin farm system.
Here are some possible trade targets, some of whom are already available and some of whom are likely to be available:
Kevin Correia, Minnesota Twins: He's probably not a great fit, as he is a pitcher who tends to give up a fair share of homers -- like his teammate, Phil Hughes -- but Correia could be available if Minnesota decides to trade off some pieces, save some dollars and land a second-tier prospect. He's making $5.5 million.
John Danks, Chicago White Sox: This left-hander has had success in the past but has been inconsistent this year, which is his first full season back after Tommy John surgery. His availability will be predicated entirely on what the White Sox see in him and how motivated they are to get out from under the rest of his contract (he's making $14.25 million this year and will make that much each of the next two seasons). Remember, if the White Sox deal him, they would have to replace him. For the Yankees, Danks could easily fit into their payroll -- if they like what they see in his stuff -- given the uncertainty about the futures of CC Sabathia and Kuroda.
Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies: In some ways, Lee is a perfect fit, and the Yankees have had a lot of interest in him in the past. Lee threw 59 pitches in his most recent rehab start. He's owed about $10 million for the rest of this season, $25 million for next season and has a whopping $12.5 million buyout on a 2016 option. If the Phillies and Yankees could agree on prospects, Lee might be the best possible fit among veteran starters, because the Yankees are probably one of very few teams willing to take on his salary.
Cole Hamels, Phillies: He can be traded to the Yankees without approval, but in the end, this conversation might be so complicated by the money owed to him that a deal would be impractical. The Phillies would want a boatload of prospects in return, and the Yankees (and other teams) might be looking for a depreciated deal, given his age and the massive dollars owed to him. We've seen two of the game's great warriors, Roy Halladay and Sabathia, quickly regress over the past two years, and Hamels will be in his mid-30s near the end of this contract. And as always, the structure of the option at the end of a Phillies' contract -- in this case, a $24 million vesting option based on his innings in 2017 and 2018 -- is a potential obstacle as well.
David Price, Tampa Bay Rays: Sure, the Rays would be open to discussing a deal with a division rival, but the price for the left-hander was set last week when Oakland talked about dealing superstar prospect Addison Russell for him. The Yankees don't really have someone like Russell to offer, making it very unlikely that the two teams could strike a deal unless the Rays identify a volume of prospects they like. (Speaking of the Rays, who are trying to decide what to do with Price before the July 31 deadline, they suffered a brutal loss to the Royals on Wednesday, and Joel Peralta had a bad day, as Marc Topkin writes.)
Ian Kennedy, San Diego Padres: He pitched for the Yankees in the past and was shipped out in the team's trade for Curtis Granderson, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and Kennedy might be the among the options who will be readily moved in the trade market. The 29-year-old has a 3.71 ERA this season in 19 starts and is making $6.1 million. He'll be a free agent after the 2015 season.
Bartolo Colon, New York Mets: He rebuilt his career with the Yankees, so they know him well and are well aware of what he can do. He hasn't turned into a pumpkin yet at age 41, having posted a 4.04 ERA, and the Mets are willing to listen to offers. Colon is owed about $4 million for the rest of this season and $11 million for next year. One thing to keep in mind here: The Yankees and the Mets almost never make trades.
Ross Detwiler, Washington Nationals: He's buried at the back of the Washington bullpen, given the depth of the Nationals rotation, but he has history as a starting pitcher. He's not having a good season, but he's not really suited for relief. Here's the catch with Detwiler: He's making just $3 million this year, and the Nationals really don't have a lot of incentive to move him, given his value as a safety net.
If Tanaka's injury is serious, the situation will be stark, but not really any more than it was last season, when the Yankees at least tried to sprint to the finish line and wound up with a surprising 85-77 record.
With or without Tanaka, they will try.
From ESPN Stats & Information on Tanaka: Only three active pitchers have thrown more innings as a professional (includes MLB, minor leagues and Japan) through their age-25 season than Tanaka:
Around the league
Regardless, Papelbon, whom the Phillies rewarded with the richest contract for a relief pitcher in history three offseasons ago, is ready to join a contender.
"Some guys want to stay on a losing team?" Papelbon said after his third save in as many days. "That's mind-boggling to me. I think that's a no-brainer [to want to leave to go to a contender]."
So you'd like to be pitching for a contender later this month?
"Of course, man," Papelbon said. "What kind of question is that?"
Papelbon is owed a minimum of $19.5 million through the 2015 season, and that number increases to $32.5 million through 2016 if he finishes 55 games next year or 100 games in 2014 and 2015.
Papelbon's get-me-the-heck-out-of-here postgame interview quickly took away any good tidings from an impressive win.
At a time when the Angels, Giants, Dodgers, Tigers and other teams are looking for bullpen help, maybe the Phillies can find a taker for Papelbon. But a lot of rival evaluators still view his contract as incredibly onerous and his 2014 performance as good but hardly overwhelming, given his overall regression in terms of stuff.
• On Wednesday's podcast, Tim Kurkjian addressed the question of whether the Home Run Derby actually affects the swings of hitters; Corey Kluber explained his improvement; and Joba Chamberlain talked about a change he made coming into this season.
• The Red Sox dumped A.J. Pierzynski and called up Christian Vazquez. Some members of the pitching staff would've been very happy with this move in April rather than now, but the Red Sox front office has never been face-to-face with the problem of a powerless lineup. Vazquez isn't a home run hitter, and neither is Mookie Betts nor Brock Holt nor Jackie Bradley Jr. nor Stephen Drew, and Xander Bogaerts hasn't developed front-line power yet.
The two most important challenges for the Red Sox as they look ahead to 2015 (beyond the Jon Lester negotiations):
1. Get Bogaerts back on track.
2. Find a power-hitting outfielder.
That said, the Red Sox did rally to win Wednesday night.
Moves, deals and decisions
Dings and dents
1. The Nationals mashed a bunch of homers.
2. The Pirates lost to the Cardinals again.
7. The Indians offense was shut down, writes Dennis Manoloff.
9. The Brewers are in a free fall.
11. Matt Cain got his second win of the season.
• Max Scherzer was great again. From ESPN Stats & Info: On June 17 against the Royals, Scherzer allowed a career-high-tying 10 earned runs in just four innings, and the Tigers were reeling, having lost 11 of 16 games. But since then, Scherzer has been lights out, and the Tigers have won all four of his starts. In those starts, he has pitched seven innings per start, having allowed just five earned runs total, with one homer allowed and an opponents' batting average of .190.
Scherzer has this pitching thing all figured out, writes Shawn Windsor.
• Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon is passionate and caring, writes Larry Stone.
• The Reds' bench is ready to contribute, writes John Fay.
• Lee Singer of ESPN Stats & Info sent this along: 10 Wow Facts about Clayton Kershaw's consecutive scoreless innings steak.
Kershaw carries a 36-inning scoreless streak into his start Thursday against the Padres. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it's the longest single-season streak by any starter since Brandon Webb in 2007 (42 straight) and the third-longest by a Dodgers pitcher since the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958 (Orel Hershiser reeled off 59 scoreless innings in 1988, topping Don Drysdale's 58 innings in 1968; just behind Kershaw is Fernando Valenzuela's 35 consecutive scoreless innings in 1981 and Don Sutton's 35 innings in 1972.)
And here are the Wow Facts:
1. Kershaw is holding opponents to a .318 OPS (.130/.164/.154) during the streak. As a frame of reference, MLB pitchers have a .306 OPS at the plate this season, so Kershaw has essentially turned every hitter into a pitcher.
2. Kershaw has faced 17 batters with runners in scoring position and not a single batter has hit the ball out of the infield.
3. Only three of the 129 batters Kershaw has faced during the streak have reached third base. Two of those three got on base as a result of an error. Kershaw struck out two of the three batters he faced with a runner on third.
4. Kershaw has retired the leadoff batter in 31 of 36 innings (86 percent). The MLB average is 69 percent.
5. Eighteen of the 36 innings have been perfect (i.e., hitters retired 1-2-3). The MLB average is 37 percent.
6. Only 30 of the 129 batters Kershaw has faced has put the ball in the air during the streak (23 percent). The MLB average is 38 percent.
7. The Dodgers have had a lead for 31 of Kershaw's 36 scoreless innings. They've scored in the first inning in three of Kershaw's four starts since the streak began.
8. Opponents are 5-for-64 (.078) with 38 K's in at-bats ending with a Kershaw breaking ball. They've put 26 balls in play against that pitch, and only two have been hit hard, according to Inside Edge.
9. Only 13 of the 129 batters Kershaw has faced has seen a 2-0 or 3-1 count (10 percent). Only three of those 13 batters reached base (.231). The league-average OBP in those situations is .512.
10. Opponents are 5-for-67 (.075) against Kershaw with two strikes. He has struck out 63 percent of the batters he has taken to a two-strike count during the streak (MLB average is 40 percent).
Meanwhile, the Padres get to face Kershaw today, writes Chris Jenkins.
• Pete Rose awaits his return, writes Tyler Kepner.
• The state of baseball in Minnesota is good, but it could be better, writes Dennis Brackin.
• Tony Oliva recalled a big hit.
• Paul Molitor reflected on the growth of the All-Star Game.
• There's another development in the Wrigley Field renovation situation.
• A verdict was reached in the Bryan Stow case.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Editor's Note: This blog has been updated to reflect official injury news regarding Masahiro Tanaka, released Thursday evening.Somebody wearing a uniform undoubtedly uttered the words "I told you so" on Wednesday night after news of Tanaka's elbow issue spread across the majors, and it's very possible that this was a four-word refrain in a lot of clubhouses.