We never try to make too much of a big deal about one game in these parts of the interweb, but we’re going to make an exception today. Not that tonight’s game means more than yesterday’s or tomorrow’s, but because of the theater involved. It’s Johan Santana vs. CC Sabathia, the ace the Yankees passed on to get the ace they wanted.
Rewind back to the 2007-2008 offseason, when the Twins make a 28-year-old two-time Cy Young Away winning lefthander available on the trade market. It was a natural fit for the Yankees – a star player who could front what was then a patchwork rotation – and they were willing to trade the prospect version of Phil Hughes. The three of us even started a campaign to keep all of the Yanks’ young pitchers in pinstripes. After a winter of he-said-she-saids, Santana finally landed in New York at the end of January, but with the Mets. Ironically enough, that was less than two months after the lefty declared he would only accept a trade to the Yanks or Red Sox. Funny how that works.
So Johan went off to Queens, and quite simply had a stellar season. He threw 234.1 innings of 3.66 xFIP ball and finished in the top three of the Cy Young voting for the fourth time in the five years. The Yanks, meanwhile, missed the playoffs for the first time in what seemed like an eternity, and the second-guessing of the non-trade started before the season was even half over. Santana’s declining peripheral stats (his BB/9, K/BB, AVG against, and xFIP all dropped for the fourth straight year) be damned, the was the guy the Yanks were supposed to have, and his absence is why they missed the postseason.
But, to be mind-numbingly cliche, GM Brian Cashman had an ace up his sleeve. Granted, it was a gamble of epic proportions, but passing on Johan was all by design. Another 28-year-old, Cy Young Award winning lefthanded ace was soon going to be available, except not in a trade, on the free agent market. CC Sabathia, the long-time Cleveland Indian was unlikely to return to the team given the fortune awaiting him on the open market, so Cashman decided to hold onto one set of assets (players) while using the team’s greatest resource (dollar dollar bills, y’all) to bring in a frontline starter.
Out of the race by mid-season, the Indians sent Sabathia to the Brewers for four prospects, and the fans in Cleveland thanked him for everything he’d done. Milwaukee, also unlikely to retain the big lefty beyond the season, rode CC right into the franchise’s first playoff berth in a quarter-century. He took to the mound 17 times and threw 130.2 innings for the team overall, but that’s not what he’ll be remembered for. Sabathia’s time in Cleveland will be remembered for taking the ball four times in the Brewers’ final eleven games with complete disregard for his health and impending free agency. With the season literally on the line in Game 162, CC threw a four hit complete game shutout against the Cubs, the National League’s best team by six games. The entire city of Milwaukee climbed about Sabathia’s broad shoulders, and he carried them right into the postseason.
After the season, Cashman put on the full court press. He had passed on Santana by choice, but he couldn’t let CC get away, so his opening bid was $140M on the very first day of free agency. It was a message to the rest of the league: don’t even think about it, he’s ours. Cashman dragged Reggie Jackson to dinners, wore his World Series ring(s) to meetings, flew coach to California in the middle of the night, he did everything that needed to be done to get Sabathia in the pinstripes. In the end, it took the largest contract ever given to a pitcher, but we know that was coming regardless of who he signed with.
One year and one World Championship later, Santana and Sabathia meet tonight for the first time as a Met and Yankee, respectively. It’s your guy, the one who wasn’t good enough for us, versus our the guy, the one with the ring and three fan bases in love with him. As far as May baseball goes, this is as good as it gets.
Here’s the starting nine…
Cervelli, C – seventh game in seven days
Kevin Russo, LF – yay
First pitch is scheduled for 8:05pm ET, and the game can be seen on ESPN. Enjoy.