Masahiro Tanaka to return to Japan after 7 seasons with Yankees

Masahiro Tanaka pitches against the Toronto Blue Jays in New York, Sept. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

Masahiro Tanaka is returning to pitch for his former team in Japan after seven seasons with the New York Yankees.

The Rakuten Eagles said Thursday the 32-year-old free agent had signed a two-year contract. Local media reported it was worth almost $9 million annually.

"WELCOME HOME our HERO!!!!" the Eagles posted on Twitter.

The Yankees recently added two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and traded for Pittsburgh pitcher Jameson Taillon. New York appeared to have no room for Tanaka in its 2021 rotation and didn't appear to be trying to re-sign the two-time All-Star.

"I have decided to return to Japan and play for the Rakuten Eagles for the 2021 season," Tanaka wrote on Twitter. "I wanted to make sure and touch base with you, and thank you for all the love and support you have given me for the past 7 seasons."

"I feel extremely fortunate for having the opportunity to take the field as a member of the New York Yankees, and play in front of all you passionate fans. it has been an honor and a privilege! Thank you so much!!"

Tanaka went 3-3 with a 3.56 ERA in 10 starts last year during the pandemic-shortened season.

The right-hander pitched for Rakuten from 2007-13, going 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in his final season and leading the Eagles to the Japan Series title.

Tanaka then signed a $155 million, seven-year contract with the Yankees ahead of the 2014 season and quickly became a steadying, consistent presence in their rotation.

Tanaka went 78-46 with a 3.74 ERA and 991 strikeouts in 1,054 1/3 innings. He was an All-Star in 2014 and 2019 despite pitching with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.

The Yankees often chose Tanaka to start in big games and he went 5-4 with a 3.33 ERA in 10 starts during the playoffs.

New York hasn't won the World Series since 2009 and lost in the AL Division Series to Tampa Bay last season. Gerrit Cole leads a rotation this year that includes Taillon, Kluber, Deivi García and left-hander Jordan Montgomery.

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Luis Severino should be ready to return at some point this season from Tommy John surgery last Feb. 27 and Domingo Germán is expected back from a domestic violence suspension that caused him to miss last season.

Tanaka was 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA in Japan, where he had 53 complete games in 172 starts.

March 11 marks the 10th anniversary of an earthquake, tsunami and the resulting meltdown of three nuclear reactors in the northern Pacific coast area of Japan where the Eagles are based. That date is sure to add to the drama around Tanaka's return to Japan.

Spring training starts next week for Japanese clubs, which have been able to play in stadiums with a limited number of fans attending.

Japan, with a population of 126 million, has attributed just over 5,000 deaths to COVID-19. Cases have been surging recently, particularly in urban areas like Tokyo and Osaka.