Yankees use their money smartly on Sabathia

December, 10, 2008
By signing CC Sabathia, the Yankees used their financial advantage wisely this time. They acquired the best pitcher available in free agency, a welcome change from the philosophy earlier this decade that saddled them with Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright and their medical bills, which accounted for 23 percent of all U.S. spending on health care in 2006 and 2007.

The Yankees' main problem in 2008 -- other than the Rays -- was the implosion of their rotation. They gave Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy rotation slots to begin the season, but Hughes ended up injured and Kennedy was ineffective. Chien-Ming Wang had been a lock for 200 quality innings until he hurt his foot running the bases in an interleague game against the Astros in June -- yet another point in favor of implementing the DH in both leagues -- an injury that cost the Yankees 110-120 innings from him. Even a resurgent final act from Mike Mussina wasn't enough to overcome a full season's worth of starts from Darrell Rasner and Sidney Ponson.

Sabathia's addition fills one of those vacant spots, and given the problems the Yankees had finding even replacement-level fill-ins for their injured starters, he's comfortably worth six wins to the team next year (and probably for several years beyond that, as well).

The problem for the Yankees is the so-called "opt-out clause," better understood as a player option. The Yankees gave Sabathia a three-year deal, and Sabathia then has a four-year option worth roughly $100 million. Player options are universally awful for the signing clubs: They cede control of a big portion of a team's payroll to the player, and they represent a pure downside play, since the player will choose to stay only if he isn't performing well or if he gets injured. There's never a good reason to give a player an opt-out clause, and giving a player one as long as four years is (I believe) unprecedented and (I know) a terrible idea.

Sabathia alone doesn't make the Yankees a favorite to make the playoffs or even finish in the top two in their division. The addition of Sabathia gives the Yankees a potentially strong front three in their rotation with him, Wang and Joba Chamberlain, if his shoulder is back at full strength; if they reserve the fifth spot for Hughes, who needs to pitch in the big leagues at some point in 2009 to resume his development, they still need to add another starter, particularly given the uncertainty over how many innings Chamberlain will be able to provide. They're also still light offensively; they finished in the middle of the American League in runs scored last year, and their only additions for 2009 will be Nick Swisher and more playing time from Jorge Posada. They don't have an everyday center fielder on the roster, and they have to hope that Xavier Nady doesn't regress to platoon-player status or that Robinson Cano returns to his late-2007 level of production.

The departure of Sabathia does give Milwaukee the Yankees' first-round pick (25th or 26th, depending on whether Seattle signs relief pitcher Josh Fields) as well as a compensatory pick after the first round, but it leaves the Brewers with what might charitably be described as a non-contender's rotation. If they're not able to sign or acquire another starter this offseason, it's hard to see them on the level of the Cardinals, never mind a Cubs team that might have Jake Peavy in its rotation.

Keith Law

ESPN Senior Writer


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