CC and the Indians team that never was


(AP Photo: Paul Chiasson)

Tonight CC Sabathia will take the mound in Cleveland for only the second time in his career as an opposing pitcher. When he called Progressive/Jacobs Field home he treated it well, pitching 747 innings to a 3.84 ERA. The fans in Cleveland loved him, and it didn’t take long for Yankees fans to realize why. He’s a big dude with an even bigger smile, and it seems like he’s always the nicest guy in the room. His 95 mph fastball doesn’t hurt, either.

Sabathia didn’t run a typical course for a young pitcher. The 20th pick in the 1998 draft — behind pitchers Mark Mulder, Jeff Austin, Ryan Mills, J.M. Gold, Jeff Weaver, Kip Wells, Brad Lidge, and Seth Etherton — he signed in time to pitch 18 innings in rookie ball before calling it a season. In 1999 he missed two months with a bone bruise in his elbow, but he cam back in 2000 with a reassuring performance. After 56 innings in advanced-A ball Sabathia moved up to AA, where he was named an All-Star. He pitched in the Futures Game that year, as well as the Hall of Fame game in Cooerstown. As we’ve seen the Yankees do in the past, the Indians brought Sabathia around the big league club in September, though they never activated him. He’d have to wait until 2001 to get his shot.

Despit having just 232.2 innings of minor league work under his belt, the Indians broke camp with Sabathia in 2001, and he made his debut on April 8, pitching 5.2 innings and allowing three runs against the Orioles. It’s tough to expect much of a 20-year-old, even if he is the team’s top prospect, but Sabathia delivered in a number of ways. He led the league in hit rate (as in, lowest), which helped make up for his 4.7 walks per nine. He ended the year with a 4.39 ERA, which amounted to a 102 ERA+. It’s tough to imagine a 20-year-old with minimal minor league experience providing more.

One issue Cleveland knew it would face with Sabathia was affordability. By calling him up at age 20 they put him on pace to reach free agency heading into his age 26 season. The Indians had raised payroll from $76.5 million in 2000 to $93.3 million in 2001, but that budget increase was temporary. It was unlikely that the Indians would be able to afford Sabathia once he became a free agent, made all the worse because that time would come as he entered his prime. Still, they made all necessary attempts, which included signing him to a four-year, $9.5 million extension after 2001 season that covered his first two arbitration years and provided a $7 million option for his final season of team control.

CC pitched very well, especially considering he was age 21 through 23, during the first three years of that contract. It was good enough for him to sign another extension with Cleveland, this one buying out his first two years of free agency. It called for two years and $17.5 million, an enormous bargain in every way. The extension also included Cleveland picking up his 2006 option. So, all told, the Indians ended up paying $13.95 million for Sabathia’s three arbitration years, and then $17.5 million for his first two years of free agency.

It came as no surprise, then, that Sabathia wanted to get paid the next time around. He had played for cheap in Cleveland for five years (not counting his three reserve clause years because he had no control over that). It was time to get the dollars he deserved. His price tag jumped after his Cy Young award in 2007, and there was little chance he’d consider signing the four-year deal, worth between $68 and $72 million, that Cleveland had offered. Knowing they didn’t have a shot, they traded him to the Brewers mid-season, which turned out to be an excellent move. Instead of getting a first round pick when Sabathia signed with the Yankees, they would have gotten only a second-rounder because the Yanks also signed Mark Teixeira.

While it appears that Sabathia left Cleveland on decent terms, there does seem to be at least a little lingering resentment, at least from one beat reporter. Two weeks ago MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince unloaded on Sabathia. It came after comments CC made when asked about how the Indians broke up their 2007 team that came within a game of the World Series. “That wasn’t our fault,” Sabathia said. “They trade us. That’s on them.”

The issue, of course, is a bit more complicated than that. The Indians started off poorly in 2008 and were out of contention by the time Sabathia started pitching well. If he had started out the season well perhaps he and Cliff Lee could have made a difference, but it just didn’t work out. The Indians traded him because they had to — because there was no way they could afford to sign him again. It does seem pretty cut and dry. They didn’t have the necessary resources, so they had to make a move. That is on them. But that’s not an indictment. It’s just a reflection of the team’s financial situation.

I’d blockquote Castrovince, but there seems little point. His beef lies with CC’s, “That’s on them” sentiment. He claims that CC should have leveled with people when asked about the 2007 team. “This is a business, and it’s difficult for a team in a smaller market like Cleveland to afford to keep its core intact. That’s why it’s a shame we weren’t able to take advantage of the special opportunity we had in ’07. And as the ace of that pitching staff, I take the brunt of the blame,” was Castrovince’s suggested answer to the question. That would have been noble, but it was in no way necessary. And it misses the bigger point.

The Indians treated CC well, as Castrovince says (slipping in a fat joke, hardy har har), but he misses how many chances Sabathia gave the Indians. He knew he could have hit free agency at age 26 and would have gotten a mammoth contract, though perhaps not quite as large as the one the Yankees gave him. Still, that would have lined him up for yet another payday if he had signed, say, a five- or six-year deal. Yet he signed an extension with the Indians, at a rate grossly below the market standard, that covered two years of free agency. He gave the Indians a chance to build a team, and while they came close they fell short.

It was a good run for CC in Cleveland. The fans loved him, watching him grow from 20-year-old rookie to Cy Young award winner in seven years. He apparently liked it enough to give the team a discount. Yes, it’s a shame, for many reasons, that the 2007 squad couldn’t finish the job. That could have changed the course of Cleveland baseball. But it didn’t, so the Indians had to make some necessary moves. Sabathia had no obligation to once again sign below market. After sacrificing money for security for five years he decided to get paid. I find it hard to begrudge him that.

Categories : Days of Yore


  1. Hopefully CC reminds the Infdians what a big mistake they did trading him.

    • pat says:

      It wasn’t really a mistake. They couldn’t afford him so they traded him beore he left for FA. It’s not like he got Saunders’d.

    • j_Yankees says:

      its a shame that what they go back hasn’t paid off.

      but it wasn’t a mistake to trade him. Not at all.

    • Pete says:

      they didn’t make a mistake by trading him. As Joe said, they had to trade him. And, unlike the Twins with Santana half a year earlier, they actually got an uber prospect in return in Matt Laporta. The Indians turned a first round draft pick in 1998 into 7 years worth of excellent pitching and Matt Laporta. That’s pretty much the best a small market team can do with any player.

  2. Stephen R. says:

    You’ll have to forgive Castrovince, he and other Clevelandites(?) have had a really bad sports month.

  3. YankeesJunkie says:

    It will be intersting to see what happens after 2011 to see if CC opts out. I find it hard to believe that a team will be willing to give CC more than 23 mil a year even if they may offer him more years.

    • Pat D says:

      I keep saying he’d be insane to opt out because no one will pay him that much again. Just like ARod found out.

      I’m really not worried about the opt out.

      • pat says:

        Didn’t Arod find a team that was dumb enough to pay him 20 mil a year until his mid 40′s?

      • YankeesJunkie says:

        A-Rod ended getting paid more from the Yankees when he opted out. Plus 7 more years. However, the market was different, so if CC opts out I would find it hard to see a team of the Yankees caliber offer him such a great deal and if he has a couple rings on his finger he may just want to stay a Yankee.

        • Pat D says:


          The owners and teams have essentially self-corrected the market. You’re not going to see any more mega huge contracts unless it’s the Yankees giving them out. No other team, not Boston, the Mets, the Chicago teams, the L.A. teams, seem interested in dishing out that kind of money.

          We’ll know for sure once Lee signs his contract this winter.

        • CountryClub says:

          The market was different, that’s true. And even then nobody wanted to give him the deal that he received…excpet for Hank.

    • Steve H says:

      I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Yankees extend him, maybe smaller AAV but give him an extra 2-3 years. If they get Lee, CC loses a ton of leverage though.

    • Pete says:

      I think he will probably opt out on terms discussed with the yankees prior to the opt-out, and come back at the same AAV but for two more years.

  4. Pat D says:

    Really, this is just a bunch of wah wah from a local beat reporter who hates having to cover a team that’s been losing and is frankly uninteresting.

    Where was he writing an article like this last year?

  5. Steve H says:

    A young pitcher struggled with his walk rate? Blasphemy.

    Good write up, I love how CC gets blasted for telling what he believes to be true, but had he gone the cookie cutter route and said nothing, he’d get blasted for that too.

  6. Andy In Sunny Daytona says:

    I totally expect the Yankees to call up Manny Banuelos has a 20-year old next year now. ( I will ignore the 8 inch height and 100 lbs difference in sizes)

  7. Paul says:

    The most amazing bit you’ve somehow missed: CC goes for career win 150 tonight….in his age 29 season.

    Sure, he’ll have to hold up into his late 30s to have any real shot at 300. But he’s the best chance in baseball today. If he sticks with his current contract, he could easily have 240 wins by the end of 2015.

    • Andy In Sunny Daytona says:

      It’s been a nice little milestone week for the Yankees.

    • YankeesJunkie says:

      If the Yankees offense is kind to him he could easily win 60 games between now and-2013 which puts him at 210 wins when he is 33.

    • Pete says:

      Yeah he’s easily got the best chance of anybody in baseball, except for MAYBE Felix Hernandez. If he somehow manages to stay healthy for the rest of his career, I think he’ll do it. The thing that often holds pitchers back nowadays (as far as win totals go) is pitching fewer games and for worse teams earlier on in their careers. As great pitchers reach their primes they become free agents and find their ways onto better teams, giving them more opportunities for wins.

      I’d say that CC ends this season with around 155 wins through his age 29 season, putting him 145 away from 300. If he pitches through his age 40 season, he’d only need to average about 13 wins per year to reach that mark. The biggest issue for him will be staying healthy.

      • Paul says:

        Except even Felix is only 65 wins and he’s in his year 24 season with 5+ in the league. In order to 150 wins he’ll need to *average* 17 wins a season and with that organization he’s only reached 17 wins once and it doesn’t seem like he’ll reach it this year.

        • Paul says:

          Ooof, typos…

          I meant in order to keep pace with CC at age 29, he’ll need to pick up the pace. Given his organization, it doesn’t look good for the King.

          • Pete says:

            yah I misspoke. I should have said the only other guy I see as having a legitimate shot is Felix. CC, though, definitely has a better shot. Still, I could see Felix being effective into his early 40s.

            • YankeesJunkie says:

              He is only 24, it will be interesting to see for long he can pitch so well. He will be in the league for nearly 10 years before he even starts his prime. It is incredible.

            • Across the pond says:

              40s not a bit of a stretch?

  8. Januz says:

    The problem with Cleveland is they simply cannot win. Art Modell, Manny Ramirez, CC, Cliff Lee, now Lebron have all left town in the hope of winning and or (Being more financially successful).
    As for CC he has his ring, and the long-term goal might very well be Cooperstown. He needs to get to 250 wins to accomplish this. Here is a key point: He is a baseball historian (That point was made during the Old Timers Game), so providing he stays healthy, he will stand an excellent chance of being only the third African-American Pitcher in the history of baseball to be elected to the HOF solely on Major League Performance. This is huge, and if he stays here long-term, because of the team around him, the odds increase of him actually accomplishing that. This is a prime reason why I think he will stay .

    • whozat says:

      “cannot win” isn’t a problem, it’s a symptom.

      • Januz says:

        I can tell you that Cleveland has a massive inferiority complex. There is no professional team that Clevelanders hate more than the Pittsburgh Steelers (I say professional cause all the Ohio State fans hate Michigan even more). Think about this one: Ben Roethlisberger who grew up a Browns fan 4 & 1/2 hours from Cleveland (Oxford, OH), takes the hated Steelers to two Super Bowl Titles. Or lOCAL guy George Steinbrenner rejected from buying the Tribe, buys the Yankees instead, and everyone knows what happened. Now you have the Akron Kid, Lebron, essentially saying “So Long Sammy See You In Miami”. I can understand why they have such a complex. The phrase “Mistake By The Lake” certainly fits.

  9. boogie down says:

    CC looks so much slimmer in the picture than he does now.

  10. TERPSandYANKSfan says:

    No tattoos either

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