If Tanaka's the Wild Card ace, here's how the Yankees can re-shuffle the deck to get there
Tanaka's performance against Boston Thursday night may now cast doubt in some minds that this is the "right" or "best" move, but eliminating the most recent of immediacy bias you can get, he has still posted a 2.62 ERA in the second half, and thrown quality starts in five of his last seven outings - and on top of that, this week in the Bronx may have further proven that, if the Yankees were to win that Wild Card Game, having Tanaka pitch just once against Boston, while J.A. Happ and Luis Severino go up to three times, is an ideal alignment.
But how to get there? It's actually Happ who is "on turn" as of now for the Wild Card Game, as Tanaka's outing Thursday lines him up to pitch on Tuesday and Sunday next week - dates that wouldn't give him enough rest for October 3 if kept, and would give him maybe too much if simply the latter start was skipped.
It stands to note, though, that as of Thursday, the Yankees were mum on their starters for this weekend against Baltimore beyond CC Sabathia on Friday, and that might actually be the key to getting Tanaka ready for October 3.
The optimal alignment for the Yankees, it seems, is Tanaka in the Wild Card Game, Lance Lynn and/or CC Sabathia as the first line(s) of defense in that game, and then Happ and Severino for Games 1 and 2 of the possible ALDS in Boston, so you'd ideally want to keep them as close to rotation as possible before those outings.
To do that, the ideal run may be something like this for next week: Happ and Severino pitching Monday/Tuesday and Saturday/Sunday, giving them an extra day the next turn, regular rest for their final regular-season starts, and an extra day before their ALDS starts; Tanaka's final start coming next Thursday in Tampa, giving him six days rest between his last two regular-season starts and an extra day before the Wild Card Game; and Lynn and Sabathia flanking Tanaka in some order, ideally CC first on Wednesday to give him extra rest before a potential Oct. 3 appearance (and to let Lynn, who has better numbers against the Red Sox this year, pitch in Boston in the final series).
So how does this relate to Baltimore and Tampa Bay? Well, if the Yankees did the above, and also had Lynn start either Saturday or Sunday, that still leaves one game against the Orioles and one of the four games in Tampa Bay with a TBD starter line. The Yankees can't necessarily afford to "punt" either game, per se, but as it turns out, they are perfectly equipped to get through those situations.
The Yankees currently have 20 pitchers on the roster, and 10 have made at least one start for the team this year. Looking at Baltimore, Luis Cessa's best outing of the year (six innings of three-hit shutout ball on July 9) and four of Sonny Gray's eight quality starts this year all came against the Orioles, so some sort of Cessa-Gray one-two punch (Cessa does have multiple three-inning saves this year) might work.
As for Tampa Bay, well, on back-to-back days against the Rays in June, Domingo German set a career-high with 10 strikeouts in a quality start and Jonathan Loaisiga threw five shutout innings in his major-league debut. Neither of them is stretched out too far, but once again, could they give you six innings of quality ball before turning it over to any of a dozen options behind them - say, A.J. Cole, who threw a pair of scoreless innings over two appearances at the Trop earlier this year?
Putting their best foot forward now while also trying to get their best foot in position for October will be a delicate balancing act for the Yankees, but September makes it much easier to handle.