1. Masahiro Tanaka: Do We Really Know the Percentages?

TAMPA, Fla. — Every single Masahiro Tanaka pitch is being watched closely this spring, and surely the bad news involving Yu Darvish out of Texas’ camp over the weekend didn’t make the Yankees feel any better about the whole situation.

Nevertheless, one of the biggest keys to the Yankees’ season forges ahead, and so far Tanaka has cleared every hurdle. He threw 29 pitches in a simulated game Saturday and is slotted to make his first Grapefruit League start Thursday against the Braves.

He looks good, feels good, and the Yankees do not necessarily read as bad news that pitchers from Chad Billingsley to Dylan Bundy tried rehabbing a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament—just like Tanakaand wound up needing Tommy John ligament transfer surgery anyway.

“I don’t know if we know [percentages] because there probably are guys who are pitching with it and never have a problem,” Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild told Bleacher Report. “So I’m not so sure how much actual knowledge we have.

“You can draw conclusions.”

But the conclusion to be drawn from Billingsley is not necessarily the conclusion to be drawn from someone else.

Take Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, who missed all of 2011 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Wainwright was diagnosed with a partially torn UCL his junior year of high school…and successfully rehabbed and then pitched, avoiding surgery.

Six years later, pitching in Triple-A for St. Louis, same thing, same result: rehab, no surgery, return to pitching.

“I tell people, ‘If you can avoid surgery, do it,'” Wainwright said during a conversation at the Cards’ camp in Jupiter, Fla. “You don’t want to have Tommy John surgery unless you have to.

“Some pitchers don’t come back from that.”

It is true that, today, the surgery has been “perfected” as much as a surgery can be perfected. But that doesn’t guarantee 100 percent success; just ask the Padres’ Cory Luebke, who hasn’t pitched since April 27, 2012, after needing a second Tommy John surgery when the first one didn’t take. Arizona’s Daniel Hudson suffered the same fate.

“I’ve heard that some high school parents want their kid to undergo Tommy John surgery so they can come back stronger, and that’s just not always the case,” Wainwright says. “So if you can rehab and avoid surgery, it’s worth a try.”

Billingsley, then pitching for the Dodgers, took that route after injuring his elbow in August, 2012. By the spring of 2013, Billingsley looked great and passed every spring training test.

“During the process, they tried everything to get me to fail,” said Billingsley, now working on completing his comeback with the Phillies, in Clearwater, Fla. “They were not babying me. I pitched a simulated game and hit 92 mph, then 94 and 95, and my elbow felt fine.”

Two starts into the season, he was done. His surgery was in April, 2013.

“When it started bugging me again, it almost felt like tendinitis,” Billingsley said. “It took a couple of innings to get loose in games. It was a gradual deterioration.”

Billingsley is just about back to full speed this spring: Doctors have told him he can let it rip, full-bore, “whenever I’m mentally ready to let it go.” Last week, Billingsley wasn’t quite to that point yet, but he was getting closer.

In Sarasota, Fla., Bundy, the Orioles’ No. 1 pick (fourth overall) in the 2011 draft, made his spring debut last week. Following his quick ascension to Baltimore in 2012 at the age of 19 (two games, 1.2 innings pitched), Bundy underwent Tommy John surgery in June, 2013 (and notably, his older brother Bobby, also a pitcher in the Orioles system, needed Tommy John surgery three months later).

From a distance, Bundy watches Tanaka and hopes for the best.

“It’s such a crucial ligament in your throwing motion,” Bundy said. “If you’re even a little nicked up, it’s going to hurt.”

So Tanaka, who signed a seven-year, $155 million deal with the Yankees last winter, moves through his spring, full-speed ahead, with the Yankees on high alert. While in Texas, Darvish, who was shut down in early August last year and tried rehabbing, will be in New York for a second opinion Tuesday and is expected to undergo Tommy John surgery.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of Tanaka. “Hopefully he gets through the year healthy.”

On that, pretty much everybody can agree.

“I’m a fan of great pitching,” Wainwright said, and Tanaka’s wipeout splitter and slider last year qualified as great pitching. Stay tuned.


2. Is the NL West Soft or Just Unlucky?

Excuse the Rangers if it seems the injury to Darvish is simply an extension of their rash of injuries over the past few years. They led the majors in 2014 in disabled list days, and it wasn’t close. Check out the rest of the top five:

Rangers: 2,281 days.

Diamondbacks: 1,448 days.

Padres: 1,373 days.

Dodgers: 1,229 days.

Rockies: 1,110 days.

Source: Elias Sports Bureau.


3. Replacing Derek Jeter

Say this for the Alex Rodriguez Clown Show: In a twisted way, it’s not a bad thing for the Yankees, because the rest of them are pretty much preparing for 2015 in the shadows of the media spotlight.

Case in point: new shortstop Didi Gregorius.

You would think the man designated to replace Derek Jeter would be doing so under a high-powered microscope. Instead, while everyone sizes up A-Rod for another back-page moment, Gregorius told B/R the other day he’s been surprised at how few interviews he’s done.

Not a bad thing for the man from Curacao who traveled with the Diamondbacks for their season-opening series against the Dodgers in Australia last year but then was optioned to Triple-A Reno upon Arizona’s return.

“I didn’t go to Triple-A bitter,” Gregorius said. “I played even harder and got called back up after two months.”

It is this attitude that gives him a chance in New York. He’s bigger than you would think at 6’2″, 205 pounds, and his hands are fairly large. His defense is sensational; it’s his bat that needs to come around.

“I saw him a lot in Arizona when I was in San Diego and I always thought there’s a higher upside to his offense than he’s given credit for,” third baseman Chase Headley said. “I really liked his swing. He’s got a good head on his shoulders and he carries himself well.”

Which also positions him to succeed.

“There’s not a lot of situations to slide into like the one he’s sliding into,” Headley said. “No matter what he does, it’s not going to be Derek. So just helping him if he’s down, if he’s scuffling like any other player, will be important.”


4. Jailbreak and Fastballs

One thing we know: That $210 million contract hasn’t caused Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer to lose his sense of humor.

When asked the other day how he’s fitting in with Washington, he immediately mentioned Jayson Werth and grinned.

“Make fun of Werthy going to jail, you fit right in,” Scherzer quipped to B/R. “That’s gold.”

Werth, of course, famously spent time in jail this winter on a reckless driving charge.


5. Cash and Credit in Tampa Bay

There seemed to be a last-man-out-turn-off-the-lights vibe in Tampa Bay over the winter after general manager Andrew Friedman left for the Los Angeles Dodgers and field manager Joe Maddon scooted to the Chicago Cubs. 

The aftermath? New Rays manager Kevin Cash is getting rave reviews in Port Charlotte for his communication skills, knowledge and reflexes.

A former catcher for the Blue Jays, Rays, Red Sox, Astros and Yankees, Cash, only 37, is viewed as a future managerial star by many. Given his years with the Red Sox (2007-08, 2010), it is not surprising he says Terry Francona and John Farrell (now Boston’s manager, then the pitching coach) are the two men who most influenced his managerial philosophy.

“I was lucky,” Cash said. “I played for some managers who were great communicators.

“So if I screw that part up, it’s on me.”


6. Minnesota’s Metric System

Between reuniting with old friends and mentoring the Twins’ many prospects (Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Aaron Hicks, etc.), Torii Hunter, 39, has been sidestepping sabermetric zingers about his deteriorating fielding skills.

According to Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average defensive metric, Hunter was a minus-10.8 in right field for Detroit in 2014, and a minus-13.0 in 2013. According to FanGraphs’ Ultimate Zone Ratings, Hunter checked in at minus-18.3. All of those numbers are exceptionally low.

Unfamiliar territory for a nine-time Gold Glove winner. Twins general manager Terry Ryan, who signed Hunter to a one-year, $10.5 million deal for reasons having to do with both Hunter’s continued ability to play and his mentoring abilities, will let it play out.

“I know all of the metric stuff about Torii,” Ryan said. “It is what it is. We’re going to watch.

“That defensive metric stuff is tough. Sometimes, it seems misleading. Sometimes, it seems legitimate.”


7. Hanley Ramirez: Hard Hat Area?

No, the Red Sox have not outfitted Hanley Ramirez with a batting helmet while he works in left field this spring.

Ramirez is fully on board, saying he hasn’t played shortstop yet this spring and doesn’t want to, adding, “I’m an outfielder now.”

“It’s all about winning,” Ramirez said. “I’m putting in a lot of work. They want me to be comfortable, so there’s a lot of early work.”

Said Red Sox manager John Farrell: “His work has been very consistent, and [that] has everything to do with Hanley’s attitude and work he’s doing with [Boston first-base coach and outfield instructor] Arnie Beyeler. He’s taking caroms and hops [off the Fort Myers-replica Green Monster wall].

“We feel strongly that by April 4 he’ll be adequate and will continue to improve.”

Good thing. Being that the Red Sox open the season at Philadelphia on April 6, that would put him ahead of schedule.


8. Trade Winds Stall in Clearwater

Yes, it’s a game of timing, and not just on the field. Often in the GM’s office, too.

Given that Cliff Lee’s elbow is sore again, Ruben Amaro Jr. very well might have blown his best chance to deal the one-time ace left-hander.

The soreness is in the same area of his elbow that caused the Phillies to shut him down last July 31.

“I just don’t have any idea where we’re going to go from there,” Amaro told reporters Sunday, in what could have doubled as the club’s overall trade philosophy, too.

The Phils’ spring started with a ludicrously uncomfortable press conference with Cole Hamels after Hamels was quoted in USA Today saying he wants to win and, essentially, endorsing a trade. When Hamels reported to camp shortly after that story, he met the media in a large room and was peppered with questions while Phillies club officials (including president David Montgomery) were in the back of the room.

The Phillies inexplicably stood pat at last summer’s July 31 trade deadline. Then they finally traded Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers over the winter, but Lee, Hamels and Ryan Howard remain in uniform while a much-needed overhaul is delayed.

Lee is a free agent after this season. If the elbow injury cuts too deeply into 2015, the Phillies will be unable to deal him by the July trade deadline, and the idea of acquiring prospects for him will be gone for good.


9. The Secret Life of Baseball Bees

You go, Ned Yost, sticking up for bees. Attaboy.

While the Angels and Royals waited Sunday for the pest control diablos to clear the swarm of bees at Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Kansas City manager simmered. And good for him.

“I’ve seen it before, but I’ve never seen mass bee genocide like that, though,” Yost told reporters in Arizona. “All you have to do is get some smoke…

“Trust me, I’m from the country. I live in the country. You take some smoke out there because the queen is in there somewhere, and you get a Shop-Vac and suck ’em all in and take ’em out to the parking lot and let them go…

“They’re just honey bees, man. There’s a decline in honey bees. We need ’em. It was sad to see.”


9a. Rock ‘n’ Roll Lyric of the Week

“Come on now, give me some sugar
“Give me some sugar, little honey bee
“Don’t be afraid, not gonna hurt you
“I wouldn’t hurt my little honey bee
“Don’t say a word, ’bout what we’re doin’
“Don’t say nothin’ little honey bee
“Don’t tell your momma, don’t tell your sister
“Don’t tell your boyfriend, little honey bee
“She like to call me king bee
“She like to buzz ’round my tree
“Oh call her honey bee”

—Tom Petty, “Honey Bee”


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. 

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