Commentary

It's gut-check time for CC, Yankees

Sabathia is worth big money, but adding years to the hefty lefty's deal is a risk

Updated: October 14, 2011, 9:07 AM ET
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPNNewYork.com

Now that the season is over, now that the New York Yankees are done, now that we've learned -- yet again -- that money can't buy you pennants or championships, it's time to assess the state of a franchise that has won 27 World Series titles, yet is evidently heading in the wrong direction.

Contrary to popular belief, the primary problems aren't limited to a hobbled third baseman and a few overpaid, unproductive fielders. They also involve an ace, CC Sabathia, who can opt out of his contract this winter and -- to put it bluntly -- may not be worth as much as he's expected to ask for.

We can sit here and look at Sabathia's 19-8 record and 3.00 ERA in 2011, and the fact that he's been the Yankees' ace since the day he arrived, but it's time for us all to ask exactly what that means in the grand scheme of things.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDid his heavy workload catch up to innings-eater CC Sabathia? He didn't post a win after Sept. 4.

Is Sabathia an ace when he's had an ERA over six in an American League Divisional Series loss to Detroit? Is he an ace when you put him against Justin Verlander's 24-5 record? Is he an ace comparable with Cliff Lee, worthy of $120 million?

And is the rotund Sabathia really worth investing in over the next five years? Six years? Seven years?

Let it be said right here that Sabathia is worth the money.

Just not the years!

Sabathia, a nice man by all accounts, can bloviate all he wants about how "there's no reason to think I can't" be an ace over that period of time, as he told reporters following the Yankees' Game 5 loss on Thursday night. But the fact remains, his midsection rivals that of the Fat Bastard character in all those Austin Powers movies.

Sabathia is fat, plain and simple, easily weighing more than 300 pounds. He's grotesquely out of shape for someone asked to go on the hill every five days, evident by a protruding belly that's been jiggling all year long.

"He's our ace," one source says. "He's a great pitcher and a great guy. We want to keep him. What are you going to do?"

Implementing a stiff conditioning clause would be a great place to start.

It's understandable why the Yankees may feel otherwise, though. No one can deny this. When Sabathia signs a seven-year, $161 million deal and then helps deliver a World Series title in his first season, it's difficult to micromanage such production.

It's made even more difficult by the fact that Sabathia, 31, is 176-96 with a 3.51 ERA in 355 starts over 11 years with the Indians, Brewers and Yankees. He's averaged a 16-9 record with 32 starts in that span, and a 20-8 record with a 3.18 ERA in pinstripes for the most storied franchise, arguably, in sports annals. And playing in Gotham City, no less.

But that doesn't mean you get to rest on your laurels. It doesn't mean you get to achieve security for years to come as the birth certificate collects additional dust, as the metabolism slows down and Father Time comes knocking ominously at the door. Especially when you've done little to offset his imminent arrival.

"Hopefully I can just keep going," Sabathia told reporters. "And that's the plan, is just to keep going. Keep going out and giving the team a chance to win and giving everything I've got."

That sounds beautiful!

It also sounds self-serving for a man in pursuit of additional millions, by way of opting out of that same seven-year, $161 million deal he's under now. It's one thing to do it when you've done everything you could, but Sabathia's record against stiffer competition in the last month of the regular season -- and his flagrant lack of conditioning -- tell us he clearly has not done so.

It may not matter to the Yankees, however, because it's not like there's a clear alternative. Lee and Roy Halladay are in Philadelphia. Chris Carpenter is in St. Louis. There are no clear aces available.

General manager Brian Cashman already has reportedly said he'll visit the Sabathia issue next week. But it doesn't really matter.

The Yankees will let Sabathia opt out, then they'll pay him because they have no choice. They have no choice because A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes and even Ivan Nova are simply not the answer as a dominant ace moving forward.

The thing is, feeling compelled toward Sabathia is exactly how the Yankees felt when they kept Mark Teixeira away from the Red Sox at a $180 million price tag. It's exactly how they felt when they paid Alex Rodriguez $275 million over 10 years -- still owing $24 million a year to his broken-down body.

And if we didn't all see before how that worked out for the Yankees, we certainly saw it this week.

We didn't like the results.

What's there to make us think we'll like it more next year? And beyond?

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, a co-host on First Take" and a regular on "SportsCenter."

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