With a heartfelt tweet Thursday morning, Masahiro Tanaka bid farewell to the New York Yankees and their fans after agreeing to a two-year contract with his former team in the Japan Pacific League after a very good seven-year stint in the Bronx.
With his tweet, Tanaka made it clear he was returning to the Rakuten Eagles.
A free agent this winter, Tanaka’s market never really developed. Teams are filling in small holes on their pitching staffs in free agency, but the top-end market is still waiting to see what develops with National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer.
According to the Kyodo News, Tanaka’s deal to return to Rakuten is for $8.6 million a year plus incentives.
Masahiro Tanaka didn’t cheat New York Yankees over last 7 years
When Tanaka made himself available to MLB clubs after the 2013 season, the Yankees paid his former club $20 million and signed Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million deal that included an opt-out after the fourth year.
He was as hot a prospect as any to come out of Nippon Professional Baseball at the time, a right-hander who at just 24 years of age had pitched the Rakuten Eagles to their first Japan Series championship in 2013, going 24-0 in 28 appearances, 27 of them starts, with a 1.27 ERA and 0.943 WHIP in 212 innings. He walked only 32 with 183 strikeouts.
The Eagles were thrilled to announce Tanaka’s return.
In seven seasons with Rakuten, Tanaka was 99-35 with a 2.29 ERA and 1.108 WHIP over 1,319 innings, striking out 1,244 against just 276 walks.
While he never approached that level of dominance with the Yankees, he still provided a good return for their money, going 78-46 in 174 appearances, all but one of them as a starter, while posting a 3.74 ERA and 1.130 WHIP in 1,054.1 innings. He struck out 991 and walked 208 and was twice an All-Star, being named in both his rookie season of 2014 and again in 2019.
And until last season, Tanaka was a lights-out pitcher in the postseason. In his first eight October starts in 2015 and again from 2017-19, Tanaka was 5-3, but posted a 1.76 ERA and microscopic 0.782 WHIP in 46 innings, walking 11 and fanning 37.
But he was rocked in two starts during the 2020 postseason, giving up six runs on five hits in just four innings of Game 2 in the Wild-Card Series against the Cleveland Indians, striking out three with an uncharacteristic three walks. The Yankees did come back to win 10-9 to close out a two-game sweep.
It did not go as well in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays, when Tanaka was tagged for five runs on eight hits in four innings, taking the loss in the Rays’ 8-4 win. Tampa Bay went on to eliminate New York, 3 games to 2.
Could Masahiro Tanaka return to New York Yankees or MLB?
Masahiro Tanaka has a lot of miles — nearly 2,400 innings between the top leagues in Japan and the U.S. — but he is still only 32 years old. The reports from Japan did not indicate whether Tanaka’s deal had an opt-out clause to enable him to return to the U.S. So it’s possible the earliest Tanaka could look to do so would be for the 2023 season, when he would be 34.
In 10 starts for the Yankees last season, Tanaka was 3-3 with a 3.56 ERA and 1.167 WHIP in 48 innings, walking eight and striking out 44. So he averaged less than five innings per start in a season that came on the heels of Tanaka recording a 4.45 ERA and 1.242 WHIP in 182 innings in 2019.
If MLB has seen the last of Masahiro Tanaka, he acquitted himself very well and if he can find the right deal, he’d be welcomed back — be it in 2022, 2023 or even this season if the details can be worked out with Rakuten.