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What's made Masahiro Tanaka great might ruin him

NEW YORK -- The pitch that made Masahiro Tanaka might be the one that ruins him. That is the dilemma for the ace and his franchise.

It was just 2010 when a 20-year-old Tanaka picked up a Japanese baseball magazine and learned about the splitter. From there, he mastered it.

Combined with the talent in his right arm, the splitter created a starter so good that just four years later the New York Yankees were shelling out a total of $175 million to make Tanaka a potential foundation of the next championship club in the Bronx.

The problem with the splitter, according to many in baseball, is that it creates extra tread on the elbow, causing it and the arm that throws it to break down earlier than it otherwise should.

That is why Tanaka's latest injury is so scary for the Yankees. Tanaka's right elbow is fine, the Yankees say, but his wrist has tendinitis and he has a mild strain in his forearm.

The good news, if it can qualify as such, is that Tanaka doesn't need Tommy John surgery yet.

The Yankees are hoping a month from now that Tanaka will be healthy again. The problem is that even if he comes back strong, as he said he expects to, an uneasy cloud will hang over the franchise.

Tanaka can only be really successful, a $175 million man, with the splitter, but it could eventually make him worthless.

"That's what's made him successful, so that's how he pitches so you have to deal with it," manager Joe Girardi said.

But as difficult as it is to hit, it is also dangerous to throw. Even GM Brian Cashman -- who announced that Tanaka was going on the DL during an in-game news conference Tuesday -- speculated that the injury might have occurred during a bullpen session.

"Maybe he blew off some really good splits that had some more torque and maybe that created some soreness," Cashman said.

Nobody knows for sure, which is the curse for the Yankees. Tanaka has tantalized, especially during most of the first half of his rookie season. He nearly single-handedly kept the Yankees in the playoff hunt as the team won 12 of his 14 starts as he made major league baseball look easy with a 1.99 ERA.

But then the elbow gave -- a small UCL tear -- and the uncertainty arrived. It will not leave until Tanaka has Tommy John surgery, which pretty much everyone believes will happen. But as Cashman said during spring training, it could be in the next 10 days or 10 years. If you are the Yankees, how do you plan with that?

Without Tanaka, they still have the talented Michael Pineda and a bunch of question marks. CC Sabathia has had one good start so far after two down years. Nathan Eovaldi needs to pitch inside more and get deeper into games. Adam Warren and Chase Whitley have shown some signs they may be able to get by, but are not yet close to proven starters. Ivan Nova (Tommy John) and Chris Capuano (quad strain) could be back by June.

Even with a sensational bullpen and even in the weak AL East, it is a bit of a stretch to imagine the Yankees winning the division if Tanaka can't pitch like an ace.

But to pitch like an ace, he needs his splitter, which is how this all started and might very well be why it might end with Tommy John.