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After alcohol rehab, Yankees' CC Sabathia in battle for starting job

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Are Sabathia's days as a starter over? (2:31)

ESPN New York writer Wallace Matthews discusses whether CC Sabathia will earn back his starting role. (2:31)

NEW YORK -- Stop me if you’ve read this one already: The position has been filled.

That is the sign that should be posted outside the Yankees' spring training complex when position players arrive on Feb. 24. It is the same sign that should have been posted last spring. (It is not, thankfully, the sign that will be posted next year, when the contracts of Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran finally run their course.)

But as has been the case the past couple of springs, every last job on the field for the 2016 Yankees is spoken for, barring injury.

Teixeira will play first, and Beltran, with occasional relief from newcomer Aaron Hicks, will play right. Chase Headley, signed for three more years, will be at third, and Didi Gregorius will be at short. New acquisition Starlin Castro is the second baseman, Brian McCann, signed through 2018 with a team option, will be behind the plate, and Brett Gardner (left) and Jacoby Ellsbury (center) will complete the outfield. Alex Rodriguez will be the DH. No one else need apply.

There is, however, one competition that has become an annual rite of spring, and will be again this year, with a twist: As always, the No. 5 starter job is in play. For the first time in three years, Adam Warren will not be fighting for it. And for the first time in recent memory, a former Cy Young Award winner will be.

Welcome to the one and only scheduled drama of the Yankees' spring training, 2016.

As of now, the Yankees' starting rotation shapes up like this: Masahiro Tanaka, Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino.

Plus either Ivan Nova, who the Yankees tried unsuccessfully to trade all winter, or CC Sabathia, the 2007 AL Cy Young winner who is coming off the two worst seasons of his career followed this fall by a stint in alcohol rehab, who will spend the spring fighting it out for the final starting slot.

Winner gets the ball. Loser gets a set of steak knives. And probably, a trip to the bullpen.

How that competition unfolds -- and how the loser responds to it -- will be one of the main stories of a training camp in which just about every other story has been bought, paid for and prewritten.

First, 2015 by the numbers:

Sabathia followed up an injury-shortened 3-4, 5.28 ERA season in 2014 by going 6-10 with a 4.73 ERA and allowing a career-high 28 home runs in 167⅓ innings in 2015. He will turn 36 in July and is owed $25 million this year, with an option for another $25 million more in 2017 unless he suffers a disabling shoulder injury, something he has never experienced, in 2016.

Nova, in his first season back after Tommy John surgery (his season started on June 24), went 6-11 with a 5.07 ERA. He turned 29 in January and just signed a $4.1 million contract for 2016, after which he will be a free agent. You can bet this will be his final season in pinstripes.

Third-year man Bryan Mitchell will also be in the mix, and perhaps one of the non-roster invites will get a look, but the main event will be Sabathia and Nova.

Nova is a fairly easygoing sort who has accepted demotions with grace before and likely will again if CC comes out the clear winner of the spring competition.

Sabathia, also generally easygoing, could be another matter entirely. This is a pitcher, and a man, of great pride, with a terrific resume who has not been in the position of having to win a job since probably his rookie season (2001) with the Cleveland Indians. He went 17-5 that year and has rightfully never had to look back.

But this is a different CC and a different story, and Yankees GM Brian Cashman is known to be dry-eyed when it comes to making these types of decisions. Ask Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada.

From what we know of Cashman, it seems likely that the best five starting pitchers to come out of training camp are the ones he will take to Yankee Stadium, regardless of resume, length of service, or size of paycheck.

How would Sabathia react to a demotion to the bullpen -- certainly, the Yankees would not cut him loose with $50 million still committed to him -- and how tough would it be for Cashman to tell Sabathia he is no longer in the Yankees' starting rotation?

"It wouldn’t be difficult at all," Cashman told ESPN.com by phone this winter. "If he doesn’t deserve it, I have no problem with [telling him]."

At the same time, Cashman pointed out Sabathia’s strong finish to his 2015 season -- he went 2-1 with a 2.17 ERA in five September/October starts and allowed just two home runs in 29 innings -- and in several offseason news conferences, Sabathia has said he expects to drop some weight for 2016 by eliminating alcohol from his diet.

"If that kind of performance continues, who knows?" Cashman said, referring to Sabathia’s final stretch.

Sabathia then surprised his manager, his GM and many of his teammates by checking into an alcohol rehabilitation facility in Connecticut the day after the end of the regular season, following a tumultuous weekend in Baltimore in which he was observed by an ESPN.com reporter trying to influence a teammate to drink outside the team clubhouse.

"It was just time," Sabathia said in a television interview after his month-long stint concluded. "I woke up on that Sunday morning in Baltimore and there was no other option for me but to get help."

In December, Sabathia described his physical condition as "light years ahead" of where he usually is in the offseason and predicted he would come to camp lighter than he has in years and ready to regain his prominence as an American League pitcher.

Nova, meanwhile, moved in a troubling direction on the mound last year, losing eight of his last 10 decisions and allowing 39 earned runs in his last 53&13; innings (a 6.58 ERA), and allowing nine of the 13 home runs he surrendered last year in those final 10 starts.

Nova has always been plagued by inconsistency, and his drop-off at the end of the season could be attributed to fatigue at the tail end of a long rehab and his first season back in the major leagues. It is possible that two years removed from Tommy John surgery, he will show more improvement in 2016.

Of course, there is always the chance that one of the four pitchers already slotted into the rotation will get hurt -- Tanaka is coming off elbow surgery and Eovaldi ended the season on the DL with a forearm strain -- rendering the annual fifth starter competition a moot point.

But assuming all goes according to plan, there is only one real job open on the Yankees' roster this spring.

And one player who hasn’t had to fight for a job in a long time is facing the fight of his career.