Yankees GM Brian Cashman was never more prophetic than on Feb. 7, 2014.
"We view him to be a really solid, consistent No. 3 starter," Cashman said on "The Herd with Colin Cowherd" on ESPN Radio that day. "If we get more than that, all the better. He's got a great deal of ability."
Just days before the Yankees introduced Masahiro Tanaka to the pinstripe faithful, Cashman spun a then seemingly ludicrous prediction for the club's new $155 million pitcher. Many laughed because Tanaka was clearly being paid to front a rotation, making the statement an obvious attempt to temper expectations for a player that was about to make a difficult transition.
However, reflecting back and looking ahead to this season, Cashman might have known exactly what he was talking about. In 2019 -- and maybe for the first time -- both external and internal expectations might line up nicely with Tanaka's actual performance.
Tanaka, 30, has undoubtedly recorded some exceptional moments with the Yankees, even ascending to the ace mantle for a period of time (fulfilling Cashman's "all the better" hope). Arguably, some of that climb had to do with the rest of the Yankees rotation, and unfortunately Tanaka has been much too inconsistent in recent seasons to be perceived as much more than a middle-of-the-rotation hurler that maintains the occasional upside of a No. 2 starter.
We've already covered why the Yankees will mostly rely on Luis Severino to take the final step toward eliteness and James Paxton's ability to dominate should he remain healthy. Consequently, the good news for the 2019 Yankees is that Tanaka shouldn't have to be better than a No. 3 starter in this rotation. Better yet, Tanaka is fully equipped to produce at that level.
Tanaka has endured two straight seasons of weak first-half production coupled with strong second halves, and the right-hander's inability to avoid the disabled list has dragged down his overall performance. Those repeated circumstances have finally quelled thoughts that he's more than a mid-level starter.
Tanaka is a highly competitive pitcher, one that rarely seems satisfied with his performances, even when they are quite good. It will be interesting to see if the highly visible pressure heaped on Severino and Paxton will alleviate any internal stress Tanaka places on himself.
It's completely reasonable to believe that Tanaka placed a heavy burden on his shoulders because of the perception he had to be the top pitcher in the rotation. This is not to suggest Tanaka won't strive to be the best, but maybe the belief that he has to be will subside and then allow for consistent production.
The Yankees will be thrilled if Tanaka makes 30 starts this season and perhaps shakes his inconsistent results. In the last two seasons, Tanaka has demonstrated that he's still a viable pitcher, even exceptional at times. Tanaka's split finger fastball can still be devastating, but the feel for it comes and goes a bit more often, which disallows extended periods of quality outings. Tanaka's proclivity to injury also tends to interrupt his ability to remain consistent.
As such, the Yankees appear to have come to the resolution that adding a top-flight starter like Paxton was integral to the club's overall success. The Yankees configured the rotation with the premise that Tanaka will aid as the No. 3 starter that Cashman once professed he could be.
Cashman's statement in 2014 was met with eye rolls, but if the same utterance was put forth today, there would be head nods abound. For once, as Tanaka attempts to be the best he can be, No. 3 starter results will be welcomed.