Now the New York Yankees can fear the worst.

A heavy part of their 2015 success is contingent on the health, and therefore effectiveness, of Masahiro Tanaka. The narrative rightfully flowed as something like this: Whichever way their Japanese ace goes, so too shall the Bombers.

The Yankees are now in full-blown “hope that isn’t the case” mode after Tanaka had to be shuffled to his dark place, the 15-day disabled list. And those 15 days will not be his maximum time spent there.

Tanaka showed up to Yankee Stadium on Tuesday afternoon complaining of pain in his right wrist, general manager Brian Cashman told reporters. The team sent the right-hander for an MRI after that, and it revealed tendinitis as well as a mild forearm strain.

Tanaka will miss at least a month. And that is leaning conservatively for the team’s $175 million foreign investment, Cashman noted via Tyler Kepner of The New York Times:

“I’m going to try to get back as soon as I can,” Tanaka said through an interpreter, per Peter Botte of the New York Daily News. “Personally, I don’t think it has anything to do with my elbow.”

That his right elbow is even brought into the conversation is the scary part for all involved parties.

Tanaka missed two-and-a-half months last season because of a slight tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, which, as even casual fans are now poignantly aware of, is the precursor to Tommy John surgery and an absence of a full calendar year or more. Three separate specialists told the Yankees last year that Tanaka could avoid Tommy John surgery with rest and rehab, and he came back to make two starts in September.

The MRI did not show any changes to the already existing UCL damage, but any forearm injury in this day of “routine” Tommy John surgeries can pump fear into a pitcher and his employer. So much so that Cashman could not help but acknowledge that elephant sitting in front of Tanaka’s locker, per Botte:

“We want to make sure this does not lead to more horrific problems,” Cashman told reporters, meaning that particular surgery.

A month is already a significant chunk of the season for Tanaka to miss. Anything longer, and the Yankees will be forced to join the likes of the Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox as suitors for a front-line starting pitcher, assuming they were not already involved in that trade market.

Tanaka made four starts this season, his last one on April 23. He went 6.1 innings and allowed one run. Over his last two outings, he has allowed just that one run in 13.1 innings. He complained of no discomfort after either start and was scheduled to pitch Wednesday vs. Tampa Bay.

Without him, the Yankees have to rely heavily on Michael Pineda to be the pitcher they have seen only blurs of since trading for him in 2012. Pineda has to be a No. 1 capable of matching arsenals with any ace in the league, which Tanaka has been when healthy. So far this season, though, Pineda has resembled that only once, in his most recent start Friday when he pitched 7.2 innings and allowed just one run against the Mets.

Last season, in 18 starts before his elbow became a problem, Tanaka was 12-4 with a 2.51 ERA. He was easily the team’s best pitcher, and based on his 3.3 Baseball-Reference WAR, he was on his way to being the team’s best player, period.

If Pineda turns out to not be the suitable answer in Tanaka’s extended absence, the temptation for the Yankees to part with pieces of their up-and-coming farm system might be too sweet to resist as Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Scott Kazmir could all be dangled in front of them in the coming months. Doing so could set the organization back years in player development.

If they do not, it could mean a third consecutive season without postseason play for the Yankees as the roster gets older, injury concerns become more realistic and frustration billows from the owner’s box and fanbase.

This is what Tanaka means to the Yankees. Partly because of an expensive, old and potentially declining club and partly because he has been so damn effective when his seemingly fragile right arm allows him to occupy the mound, Tanaka is the first domino in the Yankees’ 2015 season.

If he stands tall, they could be the team to beat in the American League East this summer. If he does not, the fallout can become undeniably enormous and detrimental to the team’s immediate and long-term future.

For now, the Yankees wait for Tanaka’s arm to respond, as scared as can be.


All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired first-hand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.

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