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Yankees take huge gamble with Tanaka

7/11/2014

CLEVELAND -- It's official now. Masahiro Tanaka has a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, and even if you attach the qualifier "partially" to it, it really doesn't change anything. A tear is a tear, and they rarely heal on their own, especially if that elbow is going to be asked to throw a baseball with serious torque and high velocity.

That's why, while it is understandable the Yankees would try to avoid taking a knife to that $155 million elbow at all costs, that gamble could come back to haunt them.

Because the odds are, sooner or later Tommy John surgery is in Tanaka's future. If they do it now, they probably get Tanaka back at the 2015 All-Star break, which is probably the best trade deadline acquisition they can ever hope to make.

If they wait another six weeks or more hoping against hope, and against the odds, that a combination of platelet-rich therapy, exercise and a scientifically-engineered throwing program will nurse Tanaka back to health, it is possible they will not see him back on a mound until 2016.

In that case, not only is this season probably lost, but next season, too. You think there's a lot of empty Legends Seats now? Imagine them without a Tanaka to watch every five days.

It's not my money, my player or my team, but if it was, I'd seek a fourth opinion on Tanaka's torn UCL, and then offer one of my own.

Do the surgery now. Get it over with, get the rehab started, and get Tanaka back on the mound as quickly and as safely as possible.

To his credit, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman did not try to sugarcoat the news of Tanaka's diagnosis, or present it as a form of good news. He acknowledged that the Yankees were going to try something for which there was no guarantee of success.

And most tellingly, when asked to provide names of other pitchers for whom a nonsurgical approach to a torn UCL has been successful, he declined to provide a single name. Asked the same question, Joe Girardi admitted he couldn't provide a single example.

"I don’t have names, but there have been a number of guys who have opted to do it that way and went on and continued to pitch,” Girardi said.

Catcher Brian McCann drew a similar blank. "I have no idea," he said.

One pitcher who did have limited success was Adam Wainwright, who was able to delay TJS for several seasons, but eventually wound up having it. So no one could come up with the name of a pitcher who has been able to do what the Yankees are hoping Tanaka can do, but just about anyone can name a pitcher who could not: Matt Harvey.

The Mets' right-hander last year opted to try to rehab his partially torn UCL without surgery. In fact, he was adamant that he neither wanted nor needed the surgery. But about six weeks after making his announcement at a news conference, he, too, wound up going under the knife. He is expected to be back for the start of next season.

Why would the Yankees expect Tanaka to be any different?

Probably a combination of wishful thinking and best-case scenario-ing, a combination that often leads to disappointment and sometimes, disaster.

Tanaka has certainly proven himself to be a special pitcher in his short time in the American League, and the Yankees surely know that to go the rest of the season without him is to abandon all hope of remaining in the AL East race. We all know the tragic numbers: 13-5 when Tanaka starts, 33-40 when anyone else does. That does not bode well for this team, even if they remain just four games out of the division lead and three games behind in the race for the second wild-card spot.

So naturally, they will try everything possible to get him back on the mound while there is still enough season for it to make a difference; Cashman said the protocols laid out by Yankees team doctor Chris Ahmad in consultation with Dr. David Altchek of the Mets and Neal elAttrache of the Dodgers would "hopefully" get Tanaka back on the field in six weeks.

Girardi, who has watched too many unsuccessful rehabs with the rest of his pitching staff to know that setbacks are the rule, not the exception, sounded less optimistic.

“I don’t know that it will be exactly six weeks," he said, "But it will be at least six weeks."

That pretty much places Tanaka's return at the cusp of September, at which point it might not matter anymore.

So why even take the chance? Tommy John surgery isn't foolproof, but it's pretty darned close. According to a recent survey, 83 percent of big league pitchers who have it return to their former effectiveness. That seems like much better odds of a full recovery for Tanaka than having him try something that has never been proven to work.

If you're the Yankees, you play those odds, rather than gambling with the future of the best arm your club has seen in quite some time.