After Thursday’s revelation that Masahiro Tanaka has a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament, I offer the following three statements:
1. Even though it’s only a "partial" tear, there’s a very real chance we’ve seen the last of Tanaka on a major-league mound in 2014.
2. The Yankees are likely to miss the postseason for a second straight year, which hasn’t happened in two decades.
3. On the trade market, Philadelphia ace Cole Hamels might be the Yankees’ only hope to replace Tanaka’s performance level this season.
Tanaka’s story sounds eerily similar to that of Matt Harvey, the young ace of the crosstown Mets whose sensational 2013 season was halted suddenly — and, it proved, permanently — by an elbow injury first diagnosed as a partial UCL tear.
Initially, Harvey spoke of trying to avoid surgery — just as Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said Tanaka will attempt to do. But partial UCL tears frequently lead to Tommy John surgery. That was the case for Harvey, who ultimately had the procedure and could miss all of this season.
"At first, I had the idea that I didn’t need it," Harvey told the New York Post’s Dan Martin in spring training. "But every time I thought about it, I kept coming back to: ‘Am I going to have this on my mind every time I pitch?’ When I wake up, is the first thing in my head going to be: ‘Is today the day I throw and it finally goes?’ It was tough."
Tanaka will undergo platelet-rich plasma therapy in an effort to heal the elbow ligament without surgery. But the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, an aggregation of medical literature on the subject, concluded in an April 2014 meta-analysis that there is "insufficient evidence to support the use" of PRP to treat soft-tissue injuries. (Chad Billingsley of the Dodgers is another pitcher who treated a partially torn ligament with PRP, only to have Tommy John surgery later; he’s pitched in only two major-league games over the past 22 months.)
As for the near-term: The Yankees are seven games under .500 this season when Tanaka hasn’t been the starting pitcher, and there’s little reason to believe that performance will improve in the second half. The Yankees already have made one trade for a starting pitcher, Brandon McCarthy, but their farm system lacks the prospect depth to make many impact moves.
The good news is that the Yankees are one of nine teams that can acquire Hamels without his permission. (The remaining 20 are listed on his no-trade clause.) But a number of barriers remain.
For one, the Phillies aren’t certain to trade Hamels — to their northern neighbors, least of all. And without a rich farm system, the Yankees may struggle to compete with the prospect offers from other teams. But they do have a significant asset: money. The Phillies could ask them to reprise the Red Sox-Dodgers trade from two years ago, taking on Hamels in addition to an expensive veteran or two (Jimmy Rollins? Jonathan Papelbon?) in an effort to clear the Phillies’ future balance sheets.
After this year, Hamels is due $96 million over four guaranteed seasons, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. If the contract options on Papelbon and Rollins vest, they have $26 million and $11 million due, respectively.
Hamels would be a prudent long-term acquisition for the Yankees as they begin planning for a 2015 season that may not include Tanaka or CC Sabathia, who has a career-threatening knee condition. In all likelihood, the Yankees will need to make yet another major pitching investment at some point between now and next Opening Day. It could be wise to do so now, with cost certainty, rather than pay the going rate in free agency for Max Scherzer or Jon Lester.
If a blockbuster with the Phillies sounds like a desperate move . . . well . . . do the Yankees have any better options? They have lost their first-half MVP for the foreseeable future, and there’s no guarantee they’ll get him back this year. Unless they’re resigned to watching Derek Jeter play meaningless games in his final September, they must make a very bold move, very quickly.