CC Sabathia's struggles, injury highlight Yankees' rotation issues

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

They aren't doomed yet, but it's easy to envision age and mileage as New York's downfall.

"It will be no sooner than six weeks from now," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told Joel Sherman of the New York Post of CC Sabathia's possible return from right-knee inflammation on Monday. This would be bad news except that Sabathia isn't Sabathia anymore; his career quality start percentage through 2012 was 64 percent, meaning that just under two-thirds of the time he made it through six innings while allowing three runs or less. Last year he dropped to 50 percent, and so far this year he had given up half of that, so that only two of eight starts -- back-to-back appearances against the Red Sox and Rays in late April -- met that standard.

Despite a slowing fastball, Sabathia still had batters swinging and missing and his walks were down, but what was being hit was hit hard, with two balls per nine going for home runs. The average American League starting pitcher is giving up less than half that -- not quite one per nine innings. The Yankees aren't very good at picking up grounders -- opponents have hit .085 on balls hit to the infield and .251 on grounders overall, neither of which sounds terrible until you realize that most of the circuit is better. As such, Sabathia wasn't getting much help from his defense, but either way, home runs are home runs, and Sabathia has the highest rate allowed on the circuit.

Including last season, a span of 40 starts, the initial-less one has allowed 5.35 runs per nine innings pitched. He's 33, he's making $23 million this year and the next, $25 million the year after that, and has a vesting option/$5 million buyout for 2017. That's a minimum of $53 million dollars coming Sabathia's way, and thanks to the little-known "Gatsby Codicil" to Sabathia's contract, he has the option of taking that $53 million in 1925 dollars should certain economic conditions arise by the time the deal concludes. This has the potential to boost the value of the remaining payment to approximately $610 million dollars.

I just made that up, but the money flying away might just feel about 1925 bad (short RCA, CC!) to the Yankees if Sabathia continues on his present path. Had the Yankees been more risk-averse -- and you can argue whether they should have been -- this was avoidable. Alex Rodriguez gave them a big hint.

Nearly seven years ago, Alex Rodriguez, then going on 32, opted out of his present contract and said, "Extend me or I hit the road." Every action film has a scene where the hero says, "We don't negotiate with terrorists!" "We don't negotiate with kidnappers!" or "We don't negotiate with wicked witches, Toto!" The Yankees negotiate with terrorists. Rodriguez had the last three years of his existing deal torn up and another seven years tacked on. We know how that worked out.

Four years later, Sabathia opted out of his deal. He was turning 31 and had been a mostly exemplary major-league pitcher since he was 20 years old. This was actually an argument against him, not for him -- excluding still-active pitchers such as Justin Verlander and Sabathia himself, if you look at the 30 pitchers since 1980 who had the most innings pitched by age 30, you find that exactly half of them had all of about 600 innings, or three or so full seasons, left in their arms. The good news is that the more recent pitchers on the list, the guys who had at least some interaction with pitch counts and modern-day bullpen usage, were the ones who kept going.

That perhaps spoke well for Sabathia's future at the moment he tore up his contract, but none of those other guys were 6'7" with a build that was a cross between a Laughing Buddha and The Motherland Calls. There has never been anyone like that in all of baseball history, the Colossus of Vallejo. The safe bet was that the general rules applied -- it's both the years and the mileage. There is a line in the 1984 classic comedy "Ghostbusters:" "If someone asks if you are a god, you say, ‘Yes!'" Similarly: "If a 30-year-old player asks to opt out of his contract, you say, ‘Yes!'"

The Yankees didn't say, "Yes!" but in the actual event they didn't get hurt too badly as these things go. Sabathia agreed to make what he was already scheduled to make through 2015 and in return got an added year at $25 million rate plus the aforementioned  $25 million vesting option/$5 million buyout for 2017. In order for the option to vest, Sabathia has to be more or less healthy throughout the 2016 season. Place your bets now.

20140510_ads_bs5_075.jpg.0Photo credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Given the way the Yankees throw money around, a $30- or $50-million bet is something they can handle, but even if you assume an infinite amount of money available through a bottomless line of credit (which is probably correct), you hate to see any team make a bad bet. The Yankees fear rebuilding, fear having to support their massive payroll edifice on a half-empty Yankee Stadium, but as last season shows, if you choose poorly, it's going to happen anyway.

The Yankees spent a great deal of money this past offseason to make up for their lack of major- and minor-league depth, particularly their dearth of ready prospects. They had what was widely viewed as a very good draft last June, but those players are still establishing themselves as being what the Yankees thought they were and are far away from the bigs. There are years to be bridged. They did so by taking an old team and, with the exception of Masahiro Tanaka, gambled on making it older.

Along the way there have been some wonderful surprises. It's unlikely that Yangervis Solarte, a 26-year-old who hit .282/.332/.404 in nearly identical seasons at Triple-A Round Rock the last two years, can get through a whole season hitting at an MVP level. Even if he doesn't, it's all gravy. Mark Teixeira can still hit, and that was far from a certainty. If Derek Jeter can't hit or run with his old panache, at least his bum leg hasn't made him as much of a liability in the field as it might have. The bullpen has been, for the most part, a thing of beauty, and Masahiro Tanaka has been as advertised.

Yet, you can't buy depth, you can only pretend to. The Yankees have pulled it off a couple of times in their history, principally in the mid-1970s and 2009, but the rest of the time buying off the shelf has produced expensive but flawed teams that generally did well without going all the way. Thirtysomethings get hurt and disappoint. Brian McCann, Brian Roberts, Alfonso Soriano, Kelly Johnson, and Carlos Beltran have yet to produce and in some cases very well may not: Beltran is on the disabled list, possibly for the long haul.

Some of the above should change, but the concurrent erosion of the starting rotation may be harder to cope with. Sabathia is gone at least into July, but even if his knee is healed, his declining velocity (91 mph last year, 89 this year) may not be restored. Ivan Nova had Tommy John surgery in April. Michael Pineda is expected to be out into June, and his endurance for two minutes, let alone the remainder of the season, has to be questioned. Last August 12, Hiroki Kuroda pitched eight shutout innings against the Angels, part of a stretch in which he didn't allow any runs in three of four starts. He had seven starts remaining and five of them were hemorrhaging wounds. This season has been better, but his 4.61 ERA and low quality-start percentage are well off of his career marks. Inclusive of last seasons's nosedive, his last 15 starts have resulted in 101 innings, 120 hits, and 71 runs (6.31 RA).

Heading into the season, Baseball America listed only two pitchers among the Yankees' top-10 prospects, and both of them are presently pitching in the Low-A Sally League. Thus is the Yankees' rotation currently composed of Tanaka, Kuroda, Chase Whitley (a recently converted reliever), David Phelps,  and junk-baller Vidal Nuno, an erstwhile control artist whose combination of walks and home runs allowed is not survivable on his kind of stuff, or Christy Mathewson's stuff, for that matter.

Much of the coverage of the Yankees' fraying rotation has focused on transferring a bullpen piece such as Adam Warren to the starting rotation. Relievers are relievers for a reason. Warren may have been groomed as a starter, but his results in the role were never great, with low strikeout rates despite a good fastball. There is good reason to think that in changing Warren's role the Yankees would weaken both the bullpen and the rotation at the same time. This may be unavoidable, and would not be so much a sign of poor decision-making as desperation.

Dylan Thomas famously wrote, "Do not go gently into that good night... rage, rage against the dying of the light." It's been fascinating watching the Yankees spend, spend against the dying of the light. That brought Tanaka to New York, a spectacle worth watching on his own, and a slim first-place lead in a feeble, torpid AL East. It's something. But as the team's Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel once observed, "They say you can't do it, but sometimes it doesn't always work." Which is to say that spend, spend might or it might not -- anything's worth trying when the alternative is, say, waiting for Slade Heathcott and Manny Banuelos to be both healthy and talented at the same time.

At least it's been fun to watch. Given that 2013 was both bad and boring, even if the Yankees don't win this year you have to give them credit for that.

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