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Masahiro Tanaka's debut provides optimism for Yankees rotation

With Tanaka in the fold, the Yankees' rotation has a chance to be better than most observers expect in 2014.

Tom Szczerbowski

With baseball season underway, the Yankees' rotation faces a number of question marks in the months ahead, the most notable of which is how smoothly Masahiro Tanaka is able to transition from baseball in Japan to the Major Leagues.

After all, the Yankees didn't commit $155 million to Tanaka over the next seven seasons without expecting the right-hander to help hold down their rotation well into the future.

Judging by his performance against the Blue Jays in his debut on Friday night, then, the Yankees' investment in Tanaka might just give them a deeper and steadier rotation than many expected in the 2014 season. The 25-year-old's final line— seven innings, six hits, eight strikeouts and two earned runs — doesn't adequately portray how in control he was against the Jays on Friday, especially in the last few innings of his outing.

Tanaka battled through a bumpy start, giving up a home run to Melky Cabrera -- the first MLB batter he faced -- in the first inning and a two-run single to Jonathan Diaz in the second, before settling down and showing just why he was such an attractive commodity to MLB teams this winter. In the final four innings of his outing, Tanaka retired 11 of the last 12 batters he faced, allowing just an infield single to Edwin Encarnacion. Even more encouraging for the Yankees, Tanaka struck out eight Jays batters and walked none, showcasing the type of sharp control that led to his dominance in Japan.

In addition, Tanaka showed the capability to get strikeouts on multiple pitches, inducing whiffs not just with his well-publicized splitter, but also a fastball that showed good movement and consistently clocked in at 93 mph. Tanaka's combination of strong control, whiff- inducing stuff, and the ability to garner groundballs (he generated eight groundball outs) will be more than enough for him to succeed in the majors.

Optimism surrounding Tanaka after his debut should filter down to the rest of the Yankees' rotation as well. Sure, CC Sabathia struggled in his Opening Day start and, at the moment, has very few proponents after a career-worst campaign in 2013. But beyond Sabathia, the club's rotation is looking more and more like a unit the Yankees can depend on this year.

Hiroki Kuroda has been one of MLB's most consistent starters since he came over from Japan back in 2008, proving he can excel in the AL East over the last two seasons. The 39-year-old looked like his normal self in his first start against the Astros despite taking the loss.

Add in Tanaka and Ivan Nova, who posted a 2.78 ERA in 13 starts after the All-Star Break in 2013, and the Yankees have at least three starters who should pitch at above-average levels this year. Whatever the previously injured but highly touted Michael Pineda adds from the fifth spot in the rotation can only be considered gravy from a Yankees perspective. The 25-year-old hasn't pitched in the majors since 2011, but enjoyed a strong spring that saw his velocity return to its former levels.

The Yankees won't be a perfect team by any stretch in 2014. Their infield has a legitimate chance to be the franchise's worst since before Derek Jeter first donned pinstripes, Sabathia might really be washed up, and the team's injury problems could crop up again in an impactful way.

Yet with Tanaka in the fold, the Yankees' rotation should keep them in games, and if the lineup can stay healthy, the club could contend for a postseason berth in a crowded AL playoff picture. The Yankees aren't the juggernaut they used to be, but that doesn't mean there are no reasons for optimism in the Bronx.