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Struggling Tanaka could impact Yankees now and in future

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Masahiro Tanaka sure looks like a pitcher about to opt into his contract.

The New York Yankees’ so-called ace has been off all season. His last time out, May 14, was the worst start of his career. Facing the Astros at Yankee Stadium, Houston teed off for four home runs against Tanaka. The righty lasted just 1.2 innings, allowing eight earned runs.

As Tanaka prepares to face Tampa Bay on Saturday, he enters the road contest with a 5.80 ERA, 1.444 WHIP and .291/.343/.533 slash line against batters. His record may be 5-2, but his 10.6 H/9, 2.0 HR/9 and 2.4 BB/9 rates tell the real story. Tanaka simply has not been good.

He’s had just one outing this season in which he truly looked like a No. 1 pitcher, a gem against Boston on April 27. Tanaka went the distance that night, blanking the Red Sox at Fenway. He refrained from walking a batter and surrendered just three hits.

Since then, Tanaka has an ERA of 9.00 as the opposition hits .368 against him.

In spite of the underachieving hurler, the Yankees have lost just three of Tanaka’s eight starts. That number could be worse. New York’s high-octane offense has done its part to make sure that is not the case.

While the Yankees have yet to get severely burned by Tanaka, they need him to figure things out if the team wishes to remain a contender. Other pitchers like Michael Pineda and Luis Severino have stepped up in Tanaka’s metaphorical absence, but they’re not guys you want pitching the first two games of a playoff series just yet.

The Yanks need their ace to start acting like one.

They need the Tanaka that entered the season with a 3.12 career ERA, the guy who posted a 2.88 ERA in the last two months of the 2016 season as New York fought tooth and nail for a wild card spot. The Yankees ultimately missed out on the playoffs last year, but to no fault of Tanaka’s.

Now, Tanaka could be the reason the Bombers don’t reach their full potential if his woes continue.

The season is still young, so he has time to correct course. Tanaka’s track record suggests he will, but his poor performance gives the Yankees even more incentive to trade for a pitcher.

That said, should Tanaka continue to sputter, his play could impact the Yankees well beyond the trade deadline or the 2017 playoff race.

If Tanaka pitches the rest of the season like he is now, he’ll likely opt into the remainder of his contract. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for New York.

Tanaka has a player option coming up this winter. Should he decline and test the open market, he would be turning down the three years and $67 million he has left on his current deal. That’s an annual average salary of $22.33 million.

If Tanaka pitches the remainder of season like he is now, he won’t pass that up. However, should he return to the pitcher he was in three previous seasons, that price would be fair for the Yankees compared to what they would have to bid on him this offseason if he were at his best in 2017.

Obviously, there’s a lot of ifs, ands or buts here, but continued struggles for Tanaka — while not so great in mid-May — could ultimately be a good thing in the long run.

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