Around the Horn: Healthy Tanaka leads rotation

Five-man competition likely to decide two spots behind Pineda, Sabathia

Around the Horn: Healthy Tanaka leads rotation

With the start of Spring Training approaching, anticipation is building for the 2017 season. MLB.com is going around the horn to break down each area of the Yankees' roster, continuing this week with the starting rotation.

There were no complaints voiced by the Yankees when Masahiro Tanaka opted not to pitch for Team Japan after representing his country in the previous two World Baseball Classics. For this team to compete in the American League East, it needs the ace right-hander to be at the top of his game once again.

Tanaka will instead spend Spring Training at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., preparing for his fourth season with the Yanks. He is coming off a campaign in which he set career highs in wins (14), innings (199 2/3), starts (31), strikeouts (165) and quality starts (19).

Around the Horn: DH/OF | Middle infield

"I guess you could say I'm satisfied with that," said Tanaka, whose 3.07 ERA ranked third in the AL behind Toronto's Aaron Sanchez (3.00) and Detroit's Justin Verlander (3.04). "The more important thing here was that I was able to pitch a full season. That part means a lot to me."

Tanaka, 28, pitches differently than the phenom who went 11-1 with a 1.99 ERA through 14 starts in 2014, but he seems to have put most concerns about a partially torn right ulnar collateral ligament to rest. His health will be a crucial storyline, as Tanaka has the ability to opt out of his seven-year, $155 million contract after this season.

Tanaka vital to 2017 Yankees

With the Yankees bypassing a thin free-agent market for starters, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia stand as the other locks in New York's rotation, which figures to feature the final two spots up for grabs this spring.

As he eyes potential free agency himself, Pineda must improve upon a baffling year that saw him set career highs in innings (175 2/3), starts (32), strikeouts (207), losses (12) and home runs allowed (27), leading the AL and setting a Yanks record with 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings.

"If you do a fly-by looking at his strikeouts-to-walk ratio, it's ridiculous," general manager Brian Cashman said. "You'd be looking at, in theory, maybe at one of the better starting pitchers in the American League. But the home runs that he gave up and how he got victimized when he was ahead in the count -- pitchers' counts -- was pretty impossible to comprehend."

Pineda's 200th strikeout

The Yankees would happily sign on for a repeat performance from Sabathia, who logged a 3.91 ERA, his lowest since 2012. Advanced metrics were kind to the lefty, who led the AL with a 24.0 soft-hit percentage, a league-low 24.7 hard-hit percentage and a 16.9 line-drive percentage that was the third lowest in the Majors, according to FanGraphs.

Sabathia underwent arthroscopic surgery after the season to clean up his right knee, though the 36-year-old expects to be ready for the Opening Day roster.

"I'm looking forward to it. I felt good," said Sabathia, who pitched to a 0.82 ERA over seven starts from May 4 to June 16. "I was healthy all year, and hopefully I can be that again this year, and just go out and make all my starts and help the team win."

Sabathia's winning start

Manager Joe Girardi will set up an open competition for the last two rotation slots that projects to include Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, Luis Severino and Adam Warren, with some runner-ups likely to slide into bullpen roles.

Cessa went 4-4 with a 4.35 ERA in 17 games (nine starts) over four stints with New York last year, and he needs to limit the long ball after serving up 16 homers in just 70 1/3 innings. Green compiled a 2-4 record with one save and a 4.73 ERA over five stints with the Yanks, posting a 10.25 K/9.0 IP ratio that ranked eighth best among Major League rookies.

Among the Yankees' best pitchers last spring, Mitchell sustained a left big toe injury late in camp that spoiled most of his year, returning to pick up his first Major League win with five scoreless innings on Sept. 7 at Toronto.

Severino will be challenged to regain his footing after going 0-8 with an 8.50 ERA in 11 starts, with the Yanks losing each of his first nine starts. His absent changeup hurt greatly, and though he went 3-0 with a 0.39 ERA in 11 relief appearances, the 22-year-old believes that his future is in the rotation.

Severino strikes out Machado

"Those guys have great stuff," Sabathia said. "Green is unreal. I think he's got a good chance to be really good in the big leagues. Obviously Sevvy had some struggles, but we've all seen the talent and seen what he can do."

Warren would also prefer to start, though his versatility may once again land him in the bullpen. The 29-year-old posted a 4-2 record with a 3.26 ERA in 29 appearances after rejoining the Yankees in the July 25 Aroldis Chapman trade, and he was instructed to prepare as a starter this season.

A dark-horse candidate could be Chance Adams, whom Cashman views as perhaps the organization's best pitching prospect. Adams combined to go 13-1 with a 2.33 ERA over 25 games (24 starts) with Class A Advanced Tampa and Double-A Trenton, holding opponents to a .169 average (76-for-450), the lowest among all Minor League pitchers with a minimum of 125 innings.

"I'm just going to come out and try to do my best," Adams said. "If the Yankees see that I'm ready to be in the pros and help them right now, then yeah, I'll contribute what I can. But if not, I'll wait until my turn."

Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and on Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.