Commentary

CC's back but Yankees still need more

For Bombers to improve upon 2011's results, they need to get Sabathia some help

Updated: November 1, 2011, 1:21 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

CC Sabathia will be a Yankee again in 2012, and having him back in their starting rotation certainly makes the Yankees a better team than they would have been without him.

But does it make them a better team than they were at the end of 2011?

No. Right now, it makes them the same team, only a year older. And the team they were in 2011 couldn't get out of the American League Division Series.

Sabathia and the Yankees averted the mutually dreaded opt-out Monday evening, agreeing to a contract extension that will pay CC a minimum of $30 million more than he was already getting, and could keep him on the mound at Yankee Stadium beyond his 37th birthday.

We already know how most of those type of deals, especially for starting pitchers, work out, but this is not a day to dwell on the long-term consequences of short-term solutions.

The Yankees are really no different from the rest of the country when it comes to stockpiling debt and acquisitions, with one important difference: Whenever the real bill comes due on CC -- and on Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett for that matter, be it five years from now or next spring -- the Yankees will have the money to pay it.

So that is not really much of a concern.

The concern that faces the Yankees today is the same one that faced them heading into the 2011 season, and the 2011 ALDS, and will no doubt face them heading into spring training.

After CC, who is going to do the rest of the pitching?

And even with CC, will the Yankees be as good next year as they were this year, which was not good enough?

Right now, the 2012 starting rotation stands as Sabathia, Ivan Nova and Burnett, and perhaps a rejuvenated Phil Hughes.

But Freddy Garcia, who won a surprising 12 games last season, and Bartolo Colon, who added eight more, are not likely to be back. To the end of the season, Hughes still showed no sign of being the pitcher who won 18 games for the Yankees in 2010, and despite all the happy talk surrounding his OK performance in the playoffs in emergency duty, Burnett remains Burnett.

That means the burden remains on the shoulders of Sabathia, who despite putting up excellent final numbers once again -- 19-8, a 3.00 ERA and 237 1/3 innings pitched -- was nowhere near the same pitcher at the end of the season that he had been at the beginning.

CC Sabathia
Rich Pilling/Getty ImagesThe Yankees weren't prepared to say goodbye to CC Sabathia just yet.

Some attributed it to Sabathia's slow and steady weight gain throughout the season. Others to the normal fatigue of having thrown nearly 1,200 innings, and more than 18,000 pitches since 2007. During the season, Sabathia himself blamed the six-man rotation the Yankees used over the final two months of the season, a departure from routine that he clearly detested.

For whatever the reason, Sabathia, while still an excellent pitcher, was in no way a dominant pitcher in 2011.

On a conference call Monday night to announce the deal, Sabathia was asked to explain his late-season decline.

"I felt great at the end of the year, to be honest with you," he said. "I don't know about fatigue. I can't answer that question. I mean, I don't know. I'm not gonna sit here and say the change in my routine had anything to do with the last month. It was just, you know, it is what it is."

The problem is, no one seems to know what it was.

Sabathia paid lip service to his weight issue -- "I need to go out and be healthy and try to do what I can to be out there for every start for this team, for me, that means losing weight, so that's what I'll do" -- but admitted "I got a little lax during the season."

Still, don't expect the Yankees to include a weight clause in the new deal; according to a Yankees insider I spoke with about this issue a couple of weeks ago, weight clauses died and were buried along with The Boss, George Steinbrenner, who loved them.

But the insider, who has been with the team for many years, said in his experience, weight clauses not only don't work, they are counterproductive because the players who have them tend to starve themselves a few days before the weigh-in -- which they know is coming well in advance -- in order to collect their cash "reward," and then go right back to their old habits and put the weight back on.

So if there's any policing of CC Sabathia's waistline to be done, he's going to have to do it. And judging by his history, "lax" is the word for his police work.

Sabathia, of course, was not the only reason the Yankees got KO'd in the first round by a Detroit team that wound up narrowly missing out on the World Series.

That honor belongs to the lineup, which boasted six starters who hit .250 or lower, and three -- A-Rod, Teixeira and Russell Martin -- who took up residence well below the Mendoza Line in the series.

Those problems are not likely to be addressed, because outside of pitching, the Yankees' roster has virtually no openings.

Rodriguez, of course, will be a Yankee until 2017. Teixeira is here until 2016. Nick Swisher, who hit .211 in the ALDS and carries a postseason career batting average of .169 like a scarlet letter on his chest, was just given another season to prove six previous Octobers were all flukes. Derek Jeter, who had a good bounce-back season but hit just .250 in the playoffs, will turn 38 before the next All-Star Game.

And the big bats out there who might juice this lineup -- Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder come to mind -- are unavailable to the Yankees not because they lack the money for them, but the space. No team, not even the Yankees, can carry three first basemen or a half-dozen DHs.

So the problems that plagued this team in the regular season and eventually brought it down in the playoffs still exist today, even with CC Sabathia happily back in the fold.

And for the second straight year, the Yankees' biggest free-agent acquisition will be one of their own guys, only a year older.

General manager Brian Cashman did a great job last year stockpiling retread arms, two of which became vital members of his pitching staff, and he will probably do the same this winter. The Yankees may yet wind up with C.J. Wilson or Mark Buehrle or Roy Oswalt, or even two out of the three.

That would go a long way toward making them a better team than they were in 2011. But as last winter's Cliff Lee fiasco reminds us, not even a truckload of Yankees dollars can guarantee that a free agent will sign with them.

Luckily for the Yankees, a truckload of their dollars was enough to remind Sabathia of how much he and his family love living in the New York area and playing for the New York Yankees.

Enough to keep him here for the next five years, at least.

That is a good deal for CC and for now, it makes the Yankees a better team than they would have been without him.

But it still makes them the same team they were in 2011, and that wasn't quite good enough.

For the Yankees to get better, they are going to need more than just CC Sabathia.

And Sabathia is going to need some help.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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