- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- The loss was too raw. The New York Yankees' many missed chances in their 3-2 defeat still felt almost too galling to replay.
So it was too soon to expect Brian Cashman to say anything definitive about CC Sabathia's contract situation as the general manager stood in the Yankees' stone-quiet clubhouse Thursday night immediately after a season-ending playoff loss to Detroit.
But it feels like the Yankees have been at this juncture before. In so many ways, Sabathia is the new A-Rod.
Sabathia's right to opt out of his historically big seven-year, $181 million contract now, same as A-Rod did in 2007, makes him the Yanks' biggest offseason dilemma. But if the Yanks give him everything he wants, will Sabathia still be an ace five or six years from now, or the highly paid albatross A-Rod is trending toward becoming?
The knee-jerk reaction is to say, who's kidding who? The Yanks will pay Sabathia, too, and take their chances. What's money to them, right? They can't risk life without the anchor of their vulnerable starting pitching rotation, same as they didn't really want to navigate the AL East without Rodriguez as their cleanup hitter back when he voided his old 10-year, $252 million contract that made him the highest-paid player in the history of the game.
Sabathia, 31, has four years and $92 million left on the contract the Yankees gave him in 2009 to make him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball.
But what used to look like a no-brainer -- the Yanks will do anything to re-sign him, right? -- became more fraught with each passing week as Sabathia faded in September, then in the playoffs. And Sabathia's and A-Rod's side-by-side struggles in the postseason only underlined the point that Cashman originally tried to make when he tried to draw a hard line in the sand with A-Rod: Are we going to pay him for what he used to be, or overpay for what any late-30s player is likely to become?
Great as Sabathia has been, its tempting to wonder what Cashman, whose own contract is up for renewal, will do. Does he still have the in-house juice or inclination to put his hard hat back on -- the same one he wore when he was playing hardball with team icons Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada this past offseason -- and tell Sabathia something he won't want to hear? Something like this, perhaps:
We'll give you a raise for those four years you have left. We might even tack on another year, to take you to age 36. But that's it. We're not going to be paying you $32 million a season until you're 38 or 39 because we don't think you'll be the same pitcher then. And we're willing to bet nobody else believes that either.
That's what should happen. It just won't.
On Thursday, even Sabathia volunteered the obvious about himself: He wasn't the same pitcher the last month of the season, nor in the playoffs, even though the Yanks gave him an extra day of rest between starts the last month.
First, he failed at three shots to get his 20th win. Then he wasn't very effective in the Yanks' Game 3 loss against the Tigers, though he was handed a 2-0 first-inning lead. He also surrendered the decisive run in Game 5 after coming on in relief. Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson, who had eight strikeouts and only one hit in 15 previous at-bats in the ALDS, touched Sabathia for a hard-hit double in the fifth and came around to score.
Sabathia didn't sugarcoat how he felt afterward.
"The disappointment is through the roof," Sabathia said as he sat slumped on a chair in front of his locker. He kept calling the Yanks' first-round exit "stunning." Then he added, "If you look at what happened this postseason, I didn't deliver. ... I just didn't make pitches. That's pretty much my postseason."
If the Yanks want a worst-case scenario of what they might be able to expect if they agree to tack a few more years and tens of millions onto Sabathia's contract, all they had to do was look at A-Rod, now 36 and looking like a shadow of his former self.
Rodriguez played only 99 games this season because of injuries, and finished the ALDS hitting only .111. He struck out with the bases loaded Thursday in the seventh inning, and then struck out again in the ninth to end a game.
A-Rod's decline was the scenario Cashman feared when he tried to walk away from Rodriguez in '07, only to have his Yankees bosses overrule him once A-Rod called to apologize and pleaded to come back. Now the Yanks are on the hook to pay him through 2017. Jeter is signed until he's 41. They committed $180 million to Mark Teixeira -- who hit .167 in this ALDS -- through 2016. They also know the contract of their best player, Robinson Cano, comes up in 2013 and Cano has already hired barracuda agent Scott Boras.
A pitching ace like Sabathia is harder to replace. He could be looking for a raise to a team-high average of $30 million a year. The market for other available top-shelf starters probably won't be robust. The Yankees badly need Sabathia now even more than they needed A-Rod back then. And Boston could use him, too.
But still. ... As terrific as Sabathia has been here, the Yanks also privately wondered if the weight he put back on at the season's end, plus the heavy innings load and pitch-count totals he's had year after year, are finally taking a toll. Around the batting cage before games, guessing how much weight Sabathia had put back on since spring training -- was it 25 pounds? 30 pounds? -- became like something from a carnival by the season's end, even among some folks in his own organization.
And it can't be a comfort for the Yanks to know that Sabathia -- who's hardly the fitness nut A-Rod is -- said he doesn't really see the need to change the way he prepares or approaches 2012 season, despite this year's late fade.
"Nah, I mean, it ended badly for me in 2008, and in 2009 we came back and won the World Series," Sabathia said. "You just always try to get better."
Does he think he could remain an ace another six, seven years?
"Sure," he said.
The Yanks will give Sabathia more years and more money, despite what the normal age curve of a starting pitcher says. They'll probably chase another top veteran starter in the offseason, too, and hope some of the other young, cheap pitching in the pipeline comes on as fast as Ivan Nova did this year. And who knows, maybe Sabathia will be right about his longevity. But A-Rod looked like a lock to catch Barry Bonds for the all-time home run record just a few years ago when he opted out and Cashman tried to balk at paying him.
How's that looking now? Don't ask.
The Yanks may pay more for Sabathia too. But that doesn't mean they have to like it.
CC Sabathia could be the new Alex Rodriguez -- and not in a good way.