If Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow had blown out completely when he first started experiencing pain in 2014, he would have had Tommy John surgery and possibly been back pitching at the big league level for a New York Yankees’ potential playoff run in August.
That didn’t happen. In retrospect, it’s unfortunate.
While some might take the diagnosis of a tear in the elbow ligament that was less than 10 percent as good news, in the end, it’s not. The real enemy the Yankees and Tanaka are facing isn’t the procedure and its layoff and rehab, but the ambiguity. When Tanaka was first diagnosed and up until this latest stint on the disabled list, there was endless debate – most of it coming from armchair experts on pitching and medicine – that he should just have the surgery and get it over and done with. The Yankees were right in deciding that they will listen to what the doctors say and let him rehab the injury in the hopes that he can avoid surgery and pitch just as durably and effectively like nothing was wrong. He made two starts at the end of the 2014 season with mixed results. He altered his mechanics and pitching repertoire in spring training 2015 to try and take the strain off of his elbow leading to reasonable speculation that he’s overcompensating and is still hurt. That groundswell grew when he was bad in his first start, mediocre in his second. It quieted as, for the subsequent two starts, he reverted to the dominant force he was for the first half of 2014 when he’d emerged as a sensation.
Now, in a mid-game announcement, general manager Brian Cashman stated that Tanaka was heading back to the DL with wrist tendinitis and a forearm strain. The MRI did not show more damage to his elbow ligament. More mishmashed good and bad news. More waiting. More armchair expertise. Some, like Pedro Martinez, who pronounced before the season that Tanaka’s elbow was eventually going to blow, sounded almost gleeful at being “right” even if he’s not…yet.
Sorry for #Tanaka but I saw it coming. Too bad he had this setback. I wish him the best and a quick recovery
— Pedro Martinez (@45PedroMartinez) April 29, 2015
This isn’t a small factor in what the Yankees and Tanaka have to deal with. No one wants to hear about an impending heart attack that might never come. But there are still questions hovering around and they won’t go away until Tanaka has a sustained run of health and success.
Will this be ongoing until the elbow finally blows? Did Tanaka’s strategic changes to protect the elbow place a strain on other parts of his arm? Can the Yankees count on him to be the Cy Young Award-contending ace they paid for?
No one knows. Not the doctors, the baseball operations people, the manager, the coaches, or even Tanaka himself. Pedro Martinez certainly doesn’t know. That reality aside, this is hindering the Yankees in a far more significant fashion than would the finality of needing the procedure.
Cashman can’t hide his exasperation as he repeatedly states that the club is following the prescribed treatment plan from doctors whose job it is to make the determination as to whether surgery is necessary or not. They had several opinions from respected voices in the industry and all said he doesn’t need to have the procedure yet. So he’s not having it. They pitched him normally while monitoring him and he’s hurt again with an injury that is, in part, different to what he had before. The elbow strain is said to be very mild. Cashman admitted that it’s possible that it’s a precursor to needing Tommy John. What else is he supposed to say? What else are they supposed to do?
“Just in case” surgery is not advisable. Having Tommy John surgery now when the injury is reportedly something else entirely is tantamount to treating a torn biceps as if it were a broken arm. They’re in limbo. And it’s not good.
There’s a sigh of relief that accompanies finality. There’s no finality with Tanaka and it’s not good for him or the Yankees. The short-term pain of tearing off the Band-Aid yields a definable result. The same goes for Tanaka had he needed the surgery in the summer of 2014 and had it done. Instead, it’s more waiting, worrying and gazing into the abyss of the unknown without an end in sight.