DETROIT — Perhaps Masahiro Tanaka should be taken at his season-long word, that he has not given any thought to the big decision that awaits him at the end of this season: whether to opt out of the three seasons remaining on his seven-year, $155 million contract and become a free agent.
“If you didn’t really think about it, you’d be kidding yourself, because it’s your livelihood,” said third baseman Todd Frazier, who will be a free agent at the end of this season, when asked what Tanaka might be thinking.
“You wonder what’s going to go on afterward,” Frazier added. “It’s only natural because at the end of the year, it’s like, all right, now what?”
There will indeed be a great deal for Tanaka to mull at the end of the season, namely how much value there might be for a 28-year-old pitcher who has looked like an All-Star many times, but one who has been erratic recently, has not made it through a season without going on the disabled list, and has a small tear in his elbow ligament.
So, as Tanaka returned from the 10-day disabled list after landing there because of a tired arm, it represented the start of what will be a meaningful final six weeks of the season, for him and the team. The Yankees, as they try to chase down Boston in the American League East and stay ahead of the pack in the wild-card race, could use a healthy and in-form Tanaka. The rest of the season could also be a money drive for Tanaka himself.
If so, it was a solid start on both counts Tuesday night, as the Yankees walloped the woeful Detroit Tigers, 13-4.
Gary Sanchez, replacing the struggling Aaron Judge in the No. 3 spot in the lineup, hit two homers — including a mammoth 493-foot blast — and Judge, batting cleanup, ended his strikeout streak at 37 consecutive games as the Yankees remained four and a half games behind the Red Sox.
Quietly, Tanaka did his part with an efficient, if not dynamic, effort. In seven innings, he allowed three runs on six hits and no walks, and struck out four. Two of the runs came on a seventh-inning homer by Nick Castellanos.
Asked if he saw any signs that Tanaka might be resembling his old ace-like form, Manager Joe Girardi could only say, “I wish I knew.”
At the start of the season, it seemed a good bet that Tanaka, who is due to make $22 million each of the next two seasons and $23 million in 2020, the final year of his contract, would exercise his opt-out in search of a longer deal — especially with a lukewarm free-agent class that is headed by Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish.
But Tanaka was rocked in the season opener and has suffered through his worst season in New York, with a 9-10 record and a 4.86 E.R.A. Only on occasion has he flashed the form that made him an ace who relished pitching in big games.
“I’m not overthinking about anything,” Tanaka said through an interpreter, when asked if he was through the inconsistencies. “I have confidence in my ability, and you just go out there and let it go.”
If Tanaka does want to test the market, it will be an interesting study. The Yankees have been through this twice before, when Alex Rodriguez and C. C. Sabathia opted out of their contracts and were rewarded with longer, richer deals that turned into millstones. Both contracts are finally expiring after this season.
Sabathia, 37, is making $25 million in the final year of his deal, a lot for a pitcher whose 10 wins are the most he has posted since 2013. Rodriguez is earning $21 million this season as a high-priced adviser to Hal Steinbrenner, the team’s principal owner, after his release last August.
On Tuesday, the Yankees made it easy to reserve any judgments. Tanaka was handed a 3-0 lead before throwing his first pitch. After being held largely in check by the Red Sox starters over the weekend, the Yankees feasted on the left-hander Matthew Boyd. Sanchez blasted a 2-1 changeup deep into the left-field seats, an estimated 493 feet from home plate. It was the second longest in the majors this season, after Judge’s 495-foot homer against Baltimore on June 11.
Judge, who entered Tuesday hitting .169 since the All-Star break, singled and walked three times, and his strikeout streak ended when Jacoby Ellsbury was sent up to pinch-hit for him in the seventh inning. Girardi said he did not have the streak in mind when he made the decision, but allowed that it was good the streak was over: “Yeah, so he doesn’t have to talk about it.”
If Judge is relieved to not have to answer questions about the streak, Tanaka might be envious. The questions about his upcoming decision seem likely to continue. Asked if the final eight starts might determine whether he opts out of his contract or not, Tanaka stayed steady and true.
“No thoughts about that at all,” he said.