Later today, the Yankees will take the field for their Spring Training opener against Florida State. Vidal Nuno will get the ball to start and he’ll be followed up by Ivan Nova, David Phelps, and Adam Warren over the next 3 games. The competition for the 5th starter spot will be the leading storyline for the early ST games, and that’s to be expected with that group of pitchers being further along than their veteran counterparts and with the other 4 rotation spots setting in stone.
While he hasn’t has his name penciled into a date for his ST debut yet, Masahiro Tanaka took another step towards that debut when he threw his second batting practice session yesterday morning. As he did after the first session on Friday, Tanaka drew praise from the coaches who watched him and the batters who faced him. His splitter is already creating a lot of buzz in camp for its sharp movement and how difficult it is to identify coming out of his hand, and each time he throws, more excitement builds for his first outing. Tanaka added to that excitement after the session when he declared himself ready to pitch in games, a declaration that Joe didn’t bite on. One thing that hasn’t been talked about a whole lot yet is Joe’s plan for Tanaka this spring, and as the pieces of that plan start to formulate I find myself caught between the desire for Joe to be smart, rational, and strategic and the desire to see him unleash Tanaka and make a statement to the rest of the AL.
On the smart, rational, strategic front, there are already some things that make sense and some things that don’t. Girardi said yesterday that he might give Tanaka a few more starts on extra rest this spring as a way to ease him into a regular Major League rotation schedule. Remember, Tanaka is coming from a league where he used to pitch once every week, not once every fifth day. Given the workload he’s already accumulated at such a young age, it makes sense to limit the potential shock to his system by slowly building him up to a full 5-day workload cycle and seeing how his body and his stuff respond.
Pitching him on extra rest a few times may also give Joe the opportunity to skip certain AL East opponents and not give them a chance to get a look at Tanaka, something that would obviously be the Yankees’ advantage heading into the regular season. This was something that Joe wasn’t as committed to last week, however, saying he didn’t necessarily feel like he had to avoid pitching Tanaka against AL East teams. If it were me, that’s a card I’d be playing all spring. I wouldn’t pitch him against any divisional opponents and I’d use my plan to give him an extra day here or there as the way to skip those teams when they came up on the ST schedule. Maybe that will be the way it works outs whenever Joe does finalize his plan for Tanaka, who knows? Maybe Joe is just sending up smoke signals and playing mind games.
Whatever the plan ends up being, I hope it comes together soon because I’m already starting to get excited about watching Tanaka pitch for real. Beneath all the rationality and logic and recognition that it’s important to get him used to the different ball, different work schedule, different hitting approach in MLB, and just to build up familiarity and rapport with his catchers, there’s this burning fanboy desire for Tanaka to come out and run roughshod over everybody this spring. I’m talking striking out the side multiple times in an outing, not allowing hits or walks for innings at a time, making guys fall over swinging as they try to hit his splitter. I want to see him pitch against the Red Sox on March 18th or 20th, absolutely dominate them for 4 or 5 innings, and give them and the rest of the AL East something to think about. That would be awesome.
And yet, it’s all very unlikely to play out that way or to even have his ST schedule set up so that there’s a chance for it to play out that way. I know that, I recognize that, and at the end of the day all I really want is for Tanaka to come through spring camp healthy, with all his pitches working, and ready to start his MLB career on the right foot. But there’s been such a build up so far, from the scouting reports last season to the questions about whether he’d be posted to the changes in the posting process to him agreeing to the deal to the introductory press conference, that it’s difficult not to get a little jazzed about watching him. Tanaka is the shiny new toy in the Yankee rotation and I’m dying to see what he can do.
(Photo courtesy of the AP)