Searching for Innings

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

In bolstering their pitching staff this year, the Yankees opted to continue their recent trend of bullpen dominance. From Mariano Rivera to Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, and Andrew Miller, the Yankees have had the ninth inning on lockdown for years. Robertson, Dellin Betances, and others have helped secure the earlier innings over the past few seasons as well. Going into 2016, Betances and Miller will be joined–dubiously–by Aroldis Chapman to form a veritable Fluffy in the late innings. There’s little doubt that the Yankees’ relief corps will be elite in 2016 and just like 2014 and 2015, it’ll be expected to anchor the Yankees’ pitching staff. That proposition isn’t all that bad when considering the talent in the bullpen and Joe Girardi‘s generally awesome management thereof. However, there is a chance for the Yankees’ great relievers to be overworked due to the potential lack of innings from their starters.

The 2016 ZiPS Projections–which Mike discussed here–do not think highly of the Yankees’ starters’ workload. They predict that no Yankee pitcher will reach 160 innings and that 2/5 of the Yankee rotation–CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda–will be under 130 IP. This is obviously a concern, though not a new one. In 2015, the Yankees ranked 12th in innings by starting pitchers and were also 12th in innings pitched per start. It is worth noting, however, the the Yankees’ starters were 5th in fWAR in 2015 despite the lack of innings. Talent, it appears, is not necessarily the problem, but there’s still a problem.

Each of the Yankees’ starters carries some level of concern. Four of them–Sabathia, Pineda, Masahiro Tanaka, and Nathan Eovaldi–missed time with injuries last year and the other one–Luis Severino–is going into his first full season as a starter in the Majors. With all that said, it’d make sense for the Yankees to look to bolster their rotation with a trade or free agent acquisition. But, at this point, those options don’t seem likely. The organization doesn’t have a ton to offer in a trade and any potentially impactful starting pitcher is long-gone off the market. Additionally, most of the rotation has enough upside–Sabathia being the exception here–that it’s worth gambling on.

Regardless of that gamble, regardless of underlying talent of much of the rotation, the pressure will be on for the starters to add length to their games this year. The addition of Chapman does help push Betances and Miller back an inning each, but this isn’t a video game; those guys can’t pitch 7-8-9 every single game. Going deep into games is certainly rare these days, and the Yankees and Royals showed last year that you can ride a bullpen to the playoffs (and deep into it). Still, the Yankees need to get more length from their starters. No one’s expecting them to toss 7 innings and hand the ball to someone every fifth day, but upping the average innings by a starter to six would be a good start.

Yankees lack reliability in the rotation, but not upside

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

So far this offseason the Yankees have worked to improve their lineup (Starlin Castro), their bench (Aaron Hicks), and their bullpen (Aroldis Chapman). They’ve been looking for rotation help all winter, particularly a young starter they can control beyond 2017, but so far they’ve come up empty. With another seven weeks until Spring Training, the Yankees still have time to find another starter.

At the moment, the Yankees do have six starters for five spots, so they have some depth. I’d call it warm body depth rather than quality depth, but depth is depth. And the Yankees are going to need that depth too, because no team gets through a season using only five starters these days. Heck, teams are lucky if they get through a season using only seven starters. That’s the nature of the beast.

The concern with the rotation is the dubious health of the incumbent starters. Every one of them except Luis Severino missed time with an injury last season. All of them except Severino and CC Sabathia had an arm injury. Masahiro Tanaka is coming off surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow and Michael Pineda still hasn’t made it through a full season in one piece in his four years with the Yankees.

“I think there’s depth there but there’s questions about health,” said Joe Girardi at the Winter Meetings. “You have Tanaka coming off a minor surgery — I guess you can say there’s no surgery that’s really minor when it’s to a pitcher’s arm — you have Michael coming back after throwing a lot of innings last year. (Ivan Nova) should be better a year removed from his surgery. I think until you see him throwing in Spring Training and throwing the ball like he’s capable of, you wonder a little bit.”

The health concerns with the rotation are legitimate. The Yankees don’t have anyone they can reasonably count on to stay healthy and take the ball every fifth day without incident. Yes, all pitchers are injury risks, but you can safely pencil guys like David Price and Zack Greinke and Jeff Samardzija in for 30 starts a year. They have the track record of durability. The Yankees don’t have anyone like that. At least not with Sabathia at this point of his career.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

What the Yankees do have, however, is a lot of upside in their rotation. I feel like this is getting overlooked this offseason. Tanaka is a true difference maker when healthy. He’s an ace on his best days, and even on his worst days he’s merely ordinary and not awful. Severino has all the potential in the world and we’ve seen Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi have extended stretches of dominance (Pineda in 2014, Eovaldi in 2015).

I don’t have high expectations for Sabathia, not even with the new knee brace, but at least Nova will be further away from Tommy John surgery. He’s been very up and down in his career. The ups have been really good though! The downs? Well they’re why he’s the sixth starter and not assured a rotation spot. And who knows, maybe the new knee brace is the magic cure-all Sabathia needs. Even becoming a league average innings eater would be a huge upgrade.

Tanaka turned 27 last month and is the third oldest of the team’s six starters. Sabathia is the elder statesman at 35 and Nova’s the second oldest. He’ll be 29 in two weeks. Pineda (26) and Eovaldi (25) are in their mid-20s and Severino’s just a kid at 21. It would be one thing if the Yankees had a rotation full of Sabathias — veteran guys trying to stave off Father Time and remain effective in their twilight years. That’s not the case. The rotation is pretty young aside from CC.

The best way to describe the Yankees rotation is boom or bust. There’s a lot of injury risk and the bust rate is quite high. Much higher than I think anyone feels comfortable with. There’s also the boom potential that is being ignored for whatever reason. Tanaka, Severino, Pineda, and Eovaldi are a helluva quartet. That’s three young power starters with swing-and-miss stuff — now that Eovaldi has the splitter — plus Tanaka, a master at getting hitters to chase.

The rotation as is doesn’t make me feel very comfortable because there are so many health question marks. I’m not sure adding a reliable innings guy would make me feel much better though. The Yankees may add a young controllable starter, but, for the most part, they’ll sink or swim with this rotation in 2016. The injury risk is scary. But don’t forget the upside either.

“I think our guys are capable of getting it done. But the thing is, you have to keep them out there for 30 to 32 starts,” said Girardi. “I think our rotation has a chance to be good. But we’ve got to keep them out there.”

Offseason Updates: CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira

CC Sabathia
(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

Both CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira are preparing for their eighth and possibly final season with the Yankees. I still remember when they signed those guys. Feels like yesterday. That was a pretty fun time in RABland. Anyway, here are some offseason updates on Sabathia and Teixeira.

Sabathia is “light years” ahead in workouts

Coming off his stint in an alcohol rehab center, Sabathia told Bryan Hoch and Chad Jennings he is “light years” ahead of the last few years with his offseason workouts. His offseason workouts have been limited by injuries in recent years. He had surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow following 2012, had to rehab a Grade II hamstring strain following 2013, and then had to rehab from his knee surgery following 2014.

“I’m probably light years ahead, being able to fully work out and do the things I want to do totally healthy. The workouts are a lot tougher, but it’s kind of what I need at this point in my career,” he said. “I’m one of those guys that never stops throwing, so I found a couple of guys in rehab to throw the football with. Then when I came out, I picked up the baseball and have been throwing.”

Sabathia is planning to continue wearing the clunky new knee brace he wore at the end of this past season, when he reeled off his best five-start stretch in about three years. As long as he’s healthy, the Yankees aren’t going to take Sabathia out of the rotation next season. They’ve made that pretty clear. Hopefully the new knee brace does the trick.

Teixeira’s rehab continues to go well

It has now been three months and one week since Teixeira was shut down with a fracture in his right shin, an injury that came with a three-month rehab timetable. He won’t start running until next month but so far everything is going well. “I saw him the other day. He’s doing much better. I’m excited to get him back,” said Joe Girardi to Mark Feinsand.

Girardi also said Teixeira will be ready for the start of Spring Training. That’s good since not being ready would mean he suffered a significant setback. The Yankees do have a Grade-A backup plan in Greg Bird, but Teixeira’s the better player at this point, and you know he wants to have a strong contract year. With any luck, Teixeira will play his way into a qualifying offer next season. He was pretty awesome before getting hurt in 2015, remember.

Yankees well-stocked with trade chips heading into the offseason

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Over the last 12 months the Yankees have changed the way they do business. We’re used to seeing them throw money at their problems. They’ve been doing that for decades. Trades were the focus last offseason though, and whenever a need arose during the season, the Yankees called someone up from the minors. It was … different.

The Yankees have limited flexibility this winter. The roster is pretty full thanks to guaranteed contracts and whatnot, and with so little money coming off the books, there’s probably not much payroll space to work with either. Not unless Hal Steinbrenner approves a payroll increase, which he’s been hesitant to do over the years.

Trades again figure to be the focus this offseason. That allows the Yankees to both navigate their roster and payroll limitations while attempting to improve the team at the same time. They don’t all have to be blockbuster trades, of course. Shane Greene for Didi Gregorius was a low-key move that paid big dividends for the Yankees in 2015.

So, with trades again likely to dominate the winter months, let’s sort through the team’s trade chips and figure out who may be on a move.

The (Almost) Untouchables

As far as I’m concerned, the Yankees do not have any untouchable players. They have some players I wouldn’t trade unless the return is significant, but that doesn’t make them truly untouchable. Wouldn’t you trade, say, Luis Severino for Jose Fernandez? I know I would. The group of almost untouchables includes Severino, Gregorius, Dellin Betances, Aaron Judge, and Andrew Miller. That’s all of ’em in my book.

The Untradeables

The Yankees have several players who they couldn’t trade even if they wanted to due to performance or contract or something else, or in some cases all of the above. Jacoby Ellsbury, Alex Rodriguez, and CC Sabathia headline this group. None of them are worth the money they’re owed and they all have full no-trade protection as well, so the Yankees would have to get their permission to move them.

There’s a second tier of big contract players who are not necessarily untradeable, but who would be difficult to move for various reasons. Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Chase Headley, and Masahiro Tanaka fit here. Teixeira and Beltran are entering the final year of their contracts, so they’d be short-term pickups, but they both have no-trade protection and have indicated a desire to stay in New York.

McCann, even while in decline, is still one of the better catchers in baseball. Maybe not top five anymore, but certainly top seven or eight. He’s got another three years and $51M left on his contract, and paying a catcher $17M per season is not something most teams can afford. Headley’s contract isn’t bad — three years and $39M is nothing — but he was below-average on both sides of the ball this season.

Tanaka is an interesting case. It seems like he’s neither as good nor as bad as many people think. Is he an ace? On his best days, yeah. But a 3.51 ERA (3.98 FIP) in 154 innings this year suggests he is more above-average than elite. Tanaka is also owed $22M in both 2016 and 2017 before his opt-out comes into play. He just had elbow surgery and teams are well aware his UCL is a grenade with the pin pulled. How in the world do you value him?

The Yankees could try to move any and all of these players. It’ll be tough though, either because their performance is down, their contracts are exorbitant, or they have no-trade protection. They’re untouchable, but in a different and bad way.

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

The Top Chip

Among the established players on the roster, Brett Gardner has by far the most trade value. It also helps that he doesn’t have a no-trade clause. (Gardner gets a $1M bonus if traded.) Gardner is owed only $39.5M over the next three years and he remains above-average on both sides of the ball. Even with his second half slump, he still put up a .259/.343/.399 (105 wRC+) batting line with 16 homers and 20 steals in 2015.

The Yankees can market Gardner as a two-way leadoff hitting center fielder to teams looking for outfield help but unable to afford top free agents like Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Yoenis Cespedes. He’s affordable, he’s productive, and he’s a high-character guy who’s shown he can play and win in New York. Teams absolutely value that stuff. Getting a player of Gardner’s caliber on a three-year contract would be a major coup.

The real question is why would the Yankees trade Gardner? He’s arguably their best all-around player. They could move him to free up an outfield spot for, say, Heyward, but I think that’s unlikely. I also don’t think anyone in the minors is ready to step in and play left field regularly. Gardner is the only veteran on the team with actual trade value though. That’s why we’ll hear his name a lot this offseason.

The Top-ish Prospects

Beyond Judge, the Yankees have a few other high-end prospects they could trade for big league help, most notably Gary Sanchez, Jorge Mateo, and Rob Refsnyder. Greg Bird is technically no longer a prospect — he lost his rookie eligibility late in the season — but we can lump him in here too because he’s not exactly an established big leaguer yet. The elimination of the Pete Incaviglia Rule means the Yankees could trade James Kaprielian and any other 2015 draftees this winter, if they choose.

Sanchez and Mateo are the team’s best young trade chips among players who could actually be made available. (I don’t think the Yankees would trade Bird but I would in the right deal.) Sanchez is stuck behind McCann and John Ryan Murphy, and his defense probably isn’t up to the team’s standards. Mateo is an excellent prospect, but Gregorius is entrenched at the MLB level, and the Yankees are loaded with lower level shortstop prospects. They already offered Mateo in a trade once, remember. (For Craig Kimbrel at the deadline.)

The Yankees refused the trade Refsnyder this summer — the Athletics wanted him for Ben Zobrist — but they also refused to call him up for much of the year. It wasn’t until very late in the season that he got an opportunity. Refsnyder’s defense is improving but it is still an issue, and the truth is it may never be good enough for the Yankees. That doesn’t mean they’ll give him away though.

Second tier prospects like Eric Jagielo, Tyler Wade, Rookie Davis, and Jordan Montgomery could all be trade bait, though that’s true every offseason. The second tier prospects usually don’t bring back a whole lot unless there’s a salary dump involved. Either way, we can’t rule them out as trade chips.

The Outfielders & Relievers

The Yankees are very deep in Triple-A left-handed hitting outfielders and relievers. Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, Ben Gamel, and Jake Cave make up the crop of lefty hitting outfielders. Relievers? Gosh. There’s Chasen Shreve, Branden Pinder, Caleb Cotham, Nick Rumbelow, Nick Goody, James Pazos, healthy Jacob Lindgren, and I guess even Bryan Mitchell. He’s part of this group too, although he can start.

These are obvious positions of depth and the Yankees can and should use them in trades this offseason, if possible. The problem is they don’t have a ton of trade value. The Yankees already traded a lefty hitting outfielder (Ramon Flores) and a Triple-A reliever (Jose Ramirez) this year. The return was busted Dustin Ackley. So yeah. Heathcott and Williams have been both hurt and ineffective in recent years while Gamel lacks a track record of top end production. They have trade value, no doubt, but don’t expect them to headline any blockbusters.

The Spare Arms

The Yankees have a lot of pitchers but not a whole lot of pitching, if you catch my drift. The rotation ranked 19th with a 4.25 ERA and 15th with a 4.04 FIP this past season. Right smack in the middle of the pack. The Yankees have seven potential starters in place next year: Sabathia, Tanaka, Severino, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Ivan Nova, and Adam Warren. That group is a mixed bad of upside and mediocrity, I’d say.

Of the final four pitchers on that list, I’d say Nova has the least trade value because he was both hurt and terrible last year. Also, next season is his final year of team control before free agency. Eovaldi and Pineda are the embodiment of that “upside and mediocrity” group. They’re so obviously talented. But the results? Eh. Not great this year. Both are under team control for another two seasons, which is a plus.

Warren has proven himself as a very valuable member of the pitching staff. He’s basically a high-end version of Ramiro Mendoza. He can start or relieve and is very good in both roles, and he’s durable with a resilient arm. No injury problems at all since being drafted. Warren is under control another three years and the Yankees rejected the trade that would have sent him to the A’s with Refsnyder for Zobrist.

Personally, I don’t think the Yankees are in position to deal away pitching depth given some of the injury concerns in the rotation, but I thought that last year and they traded Greene anyway. As it turned out, they were planning to trade for another pitcher (Eovaldi) and bring in a low cost veteran for depth (Chris Capuano). They also had Warren waiting. The same could happen this year.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

The Best of the Rest

There’s three players on the roster we haven’t covered. The best of the bunch is Murphy, a young and cheap catcher with defensive chops, a promising bat, and five years of team control remaining. I can’t imagine how many calls Brian Cashman has fielded about Murphy over the last 18 months or so. He’s really valuable and not just in a trade. To the Yankees too.

Justin Wilson is what every team looks for in a reliever: he throws hard and he misses bats. Being left-handed is a bonus. He struggles with control sometimes, and that’s why he’s only a reliever and not a starter or something more. Wilson has three years of control remaining, so his trade value is less than last offseason, when all it took to get him was an injury plagued backup catcher two years away from free agency. (What Francisco Cervelli did after the trade doesn’t change anything.)

Ackley is the third player and he doesn’t have much value. Flores and Ramirez. There’s his trade value, even after a strong finish to the season. Those 57 plate appearances with the Yankees didn’t erase his 2,200 plate appearances of awful with the Mariners. Given his versatility, Ackley is more valuable to the Yankees as a player than as a trade chip. I think the same is true of Wilson as well.

* * *

Last offseason taught me that pretty much no one is safe from trades other than the guys with no-trade clauses. I did not at all expect the Yankees to trade Greene or Martin Prado or even Manny Banuelos. Those were surprises. I would be surprised if the Yankees traded guys like Severino and Gregorius and Gardner this winter, but hey, anything can happen. Surprises are fun. The Yankees are well-armed with trade chips this winter. All shapes and sizes.

Update: CC Sabathia returns home after completing stay at rehab center

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

November 4th: Sabathia completed his stay at the rehab center last Friday, reports George King. He’s back home with his family in New Jersey. Hooray for that.

October 28th: Got some good news to pass along. According to Jon Heyman, CC Sabathia is expected to check out of his alcohol rehab center either later this week or early next week. Neither the Yankees nor Sabathia have confirmed anything. Sabathia checked into the rehab center on October 4th, so his stay will last roughly four weeks.

Now just because Sabathia is close to completing his stay at the rehab center, it doesn’t mean his alcohol problem is behind him. Not at all. He’ll have to work on his recovery literally the rest of his life, and especially in the next few weeks and months and years. Rehab was just the start and so far everything is going well. That’s good to hear.

The baseball aspect of Sabathia’s rehab is kinda uncomfortable to talk about, but it is something we should discuss. Since he’s leaving rehab relatively soon, it should have no impact on his offseason routine. Most pitchers don’t begin throwing until mid-to-late November or even December anyway. Sabathia has confirmed that is his usual offseason schedule when discussing injuries in recent years.

The first few weeks of the offseason are downtime. This year Sabathia spent them in rehab rather than on vacation. Unless he has to return to rehab at some point — that would be next level bad and not for baseball reasons — there’s no reason to think Sabathia’s offseason routine will be out of whack this winter. He’s still a few weeks from throwing anyway.

The good news is Sabathia is getting healthy and apparently making progress. He’ll have to keeping working at it going forward of course, but it looks like he has a strong support group in place, including the Yankees. As far as baseball is concerned, there’s no reason right now to think Sabathia won’t be ready come Spring Training.

CC Sabathia and the Importance of Life Outside Baseball [2015 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Once upon a time, CC Sabathia was a rock in the Yankees rotation. He was the guy who allowed Joe Girardi to sit back and relax every fifth day, because Girardi knew Sabathia would give the team a quality outing. The Sabathia of old was an ace in every way — he soaked up innings and they were all high quality innings. It was great.

The Sabathia of old is now just old Sabathia. All those innings and all those years of his massive frame coming down hard on his right (landing) knee have taken a toll on Sabathia physically. At age 35, things don’t work as well as they once did. Sabathia was ineffective in 2013 and both hurt and ineffective in 2014. What would 2015 bring? No one knew heading into Spring Training.

A Spring Away from the Spotlight

Sabathia’s season ended in mid-May last year due to ongoing knee problems, which eventually required a clean out procedure in mid-July. The surgery was season-ending but it was much better than the alternative: career-threatening microfracture surgery. Sabathia had his knee cleaned out and came to camp healthy and ready to pitch.

The Yankees didn’t necessarily hide Sabathia during Spring Training, but he did most of his prep work away from the spotlight in minor league and simulated games. The team wanted him in a more controlled environment following knee surgery. Sabathia made just three Grapefruit League starts and got hammered: nine runs on 14 hits and three walks in ten innings. He did the rest of his work on the side.

“I don’t give a (expletive!) what stock they put in (my performance),” said Sabathia to reporters at the end of March. “It is what it is. I’ve had Spring Trainings where I’ve given up a lot of runs and went out and had a good season. I’ve had Spring Trainings like last year where I didn’t give up (any) runs and I gave up (six) in the first game (Opening Day against the Astros). So you all can put stock in whatever you want. I’m not really worried about it.”

Sabathia wasn’t worried about his spring performance and that’s good, an athlete needs to be confident, but it didn’t make fans feel any better. He struggled big time from 2013-14 and it would have been nice to see some zeroes in camp. It’s Spring Training, it wouldn’t have meant anything, but geez, seeing him get lit up so soon after knee surgery was not reassuring.

Reliably Unreliable

Once again, the start of the season was a struggle for Sabathia. He allowed five runs (four earned) in 5.2 innings against the Blue Jays in his first start of the year — that was the third game of the season, the Yankees gave Masahiro Tanaka the Opening Day start (and Michael Pineda the second game) after Sabathia started Opening Day every year from 2009-14 — and then allowed four runs in seven innings next time out.

In his third start, Sabathia held the Tigers to two runs in eight innings in a tough complete game loss. It was a game the Yankees should have won, but their offense let them down. That’s baseball sometimes.

Those first three starts were essentially a microcosm of Sabathia’s season. A lot of bad with enough good mixed in to keep you hoping a turn around was coming. Sabathia allowed seven runs in five innings in his next start, and come the end of June, he owned a 5.59 ERA (4.62 FIP) in 16 starts and 95 innings. That’s basically half a season.

The Sabathia we saw from 2013-14 was the Sabathia we were seeing in 2015. His strikeout (20.2%) and walk (4.4%) rates were wonderful, but he was exceptionally homer prone (1.80 HR/9) and not the same caliber of workhorse — Sabathia averaged just under six innings per start in those first 16 starts. From 2009-12, Sabathia failed to complete six innings only 13 times (!) in 129 starts. He did it six times in his first 16 starts of 2015.

Committed, For Better or Worse

The Yankees made is clear they were committed to keeping Sabathia in the rotation in late-June, when Ivan Nova returned from Tommy John surgery and Adam Warren was sent back to the bullpen. On merit, Warren had no business being demoted. He was pitching well as a starter — especially at that time too, he was really starting to settle in — and was one of the five best starting pitchers in the organization. He might have been the second or third best at time.

And yet, the Yankees were committed to Sabathia, and obviously his contract has something to do with that. I’m guessing the team wouldn’t have been so hesitant to yank him from the starting rotation if he was owed, say, $10M in 2015 rather than $53M from 2015-16 (and possibly $73M from 2015-17). Sabathia stayed in the rotation, and in his next eight starts, he had a 4.57 ERA (5.30 FIP) in 43.1 innings. That’s … better?

To their credit, the Yankees started to shelter Sabathia in the second half. They rearranged the rotation whenever possible — they did this with off-days and an occasional spot sixth starter — to make sure he avoided the Blue Jays, for example. The Yankees knew Sabathia was a detriment, and while they were not willing to take him out of the rotation, they did the next best thing. They used him sparingly.

The Knee Brace That Fixed Everything, Maybe

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Sabathia during his seven years in pinstripes, it’s that he’s willing to pitch through just about anything. He pitched with knee pain most of 2010 and with a bone spur in his elbow in 2012. Sabathia suffered a Grade II hamstring strain in September 2013 and finished the damn start. For better or worse, Sabathia wanted to be out there.

That’s why, on August 23rd, it was disheartening to see Sabathia remove himself from a start against the Indians. He was struggled big time — he allowed two runs on four hits and four walks in only 2.2 innings — and the pain in his right knee simply became too much. He pulled himself from the start without even attempting a test pitch or lobbying to stay in the game.

Sabathia had his right knee drained multiple times throughout the course of the season, and it seemed like it was working, but the pain was too much to take that Sunday afternoon. The initial reaction was Sabathia’s season was over. That always seems to be the first reaction whenever a pitcher gets hurt. The Yankees sent CC for tests, tests that showed no new damage, just inflammation. He needed rest.

After all of that, Sabathia missed only the minimum 15 days. The Yankees put him on the DL and activated him as soon as possible. He didn’t need any additional surgery or anything like that, just rest. Well, rest and new knee brace. Sabathia had been wearing a sleeve on his knee for much of the season, but, after the injury in August, he switched to a clunkier brace that reduced the bone on bone contact.

For whatever reason, the new knee brace or otherwise, Sabathia was awesome after coming off the DL. Five starts, 29 innings, and only nine runs (seven earned) allowed. He held hitters to a .224/.320/.327 batting line. It wasn’t the old ace version of Sabathia, but it was a heck of a lot better than what the Yankees were getting from him most of the season. He allowed one earned run or less in four of those five starts.

The Yankees were never not going to have Sabathia in their postseason rotation — he probably would have been their fourth starter at best had they qualified for the ALDS, but he was going to be in the rotation, that was clear — but after his September dominance, he belonged in that postseason conversation. Sabathia really stepped up in that final month.

He ended the season with a 4.73 ERA (4.68 FIP) in 29 starts and a team leading 167.1 innings, which obviously isn’t very good despite the great finish. Right-handed batters crushed Sabathia — they hit .303/.362/.500 (.370 wOBA) against him while lefties hit a mere .186/.235/.283 (.231 wOBA). Manny Machado hit .286/.359/.502 (.370 wOBA), for comparison. Righties absolutely destroyed Sabathia.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Bigger than Baseball

It can be easy to forget baseball players are regular people too. Regular people with kids who keep them up at night and bills they hate paying and other problems. Sabathia had a drinking problem, little did we know. A problem severe enough that he decided he needed help at the end of the season.

Sabathia approached Girardi on the final day of the regular season and told him he needed treatment. The Yankees, who were set to play in the wildcard game a few days later, gave their erstwhile ace their unwavering support. This was about Sabathia the person, not the baseball player, and Sabathia is beloved and respected within the organization. He’s a team leader, without question.

How severe was Sabathia’s drinking problem? Severe enough that it even spilled into the clubhouse near the end of the season. From Wally Matthews:

After the Yankees’ game with the Baltimore Orioles was rained out on Friday afternoon, Sabathia was seen by reporters walking unsteadily as he left the Yankees’ clubhouse. The normally affable pitcher also failed to respond to the greetings of reporters who have known him for a long time.

A short time later, an onlooker noticed Sabathia offering a paper cup containing a brown liquid to a teammate who was finishing up a workout, urging the teammate to “take a sip.” The teammate refused, saying he still had some running to do. Sabathia was then ushered out of the building and into a waiting cab by a third teammate.

Yikes. We’ll never know what pushed Sabathia to get treatment — did his wife give him an ultimatum? did he come to the decision on his own? did his teammates push him? — but the important thing is he decided to get treatment. Sabathia was criticized by some for leaving the team right before the start of the postseason, that was inevitable, but this isn’t like getting a tooth pulled. He couldn’t put it off. Addiction ruins lives.

So on Monday, October 5th, the day between Game 162 and the wildcard game, Girardi and Brian Cashman took part in a press conference at Yankee Stadium to discuss Sabathia leaving the team. “I applaud CC for his courage. He is not alone in this,” said Cashman. “What CC’s dealing with is a life issue. It’s bigger than the game we have tomorrow night.”

From a baseball perspective, Sabathia leaving the team had little impact. James Pazos made the wildcard game roster in his place, but pitching wasn’t the issue in the loss to the Astros, so Sabathia being on the roster wouldn’t have made a difference.

From a human being perspective, Sabathia is doing what is best for himself and his family. He’s a father and a husband first, and a baseball player second. I’m sure leaving the team right before the postseason killed him. But baseball is a secondary concern at a time like this.

Looking Ahead to 2016

Sabathia is expected back for Spring Training and will enter the final guaranteed year of his contract. (His 2017 vesting option is based on the health of his shoulder, which has been fine so far.) As long as he’s healthy, there’s no reason to think he won’t be in the rotation. The Yankees are going to want to see if the new knee brace leads to a sustained improved performance, plus they still owe him a boatload of money, so his leash will be long.

The Stories to Come

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Despite my background as an English teacher, something that I don’t usually care for in sports is the narrative thereof. As someone who deals with and has dealt with novels, short stories, and the like professionally for a while now, you’d think I’d dig stories and how they unfold over a long period of time, but as any of my students of recent vintage could tell you, plots are far less engaging and important than characters are. Still, they’re unavoidable and, without them, the other stuff can’t, won’t, and doesn’t happen. With the season (unfortunately) over for the Yankees, there won’t be the “characters” and their actions–their play on the field–to distract us from the storylines that will emerge over the next few baseball-less months. These, like all things baseball, will lead to copious (if not repetitive) arguments amongst fans, so let’s try to preview what they’ll be to better prepare ourselves.

The general flow of offseason narratives is obviously dictated by when your team is eliminated from the playoffs, and with that time upon the Yankees, we’ve already seen the first part of the narrative cycle. Joe Girardi had his end-of-season conference and discussed many things, among them, possible changes for next year. Given that the Yankees–or any team for that matter–can’t really get into actual changes with the playoffs still on-going, we have to speculate about what changes will come internally before any roster changes are made. That story starts with the departure of Billy Eppler, long-time Yankee assistant GM, who’ll be taking over GM duties for the Angels. Will he take any staffers with him? Will he try to trade for some pet-players in the farm system? How will this affect the Yankees’ general approach to free-agency? More broadly to that last point, who will or won’t the Yankees sign in the offseason?

The team we saw in 2015 was flawed, but good enough up until the last two months of the season. There is room for improvement, but where will the Yankees find that room? Second base is probably the only spot where an offseason upgrade can occur, given the blockages at just about every other position on the field. Will they roll with a Dustin Ackley/Rob Refsnyder platoon until one of them forces the other out? Will they make a run at Ben Zobrist since he won’t have draft pick compensation attached to him since he was traded mid-season? We know Brian Cashman tried to acquire Zobrist from the A’s before the A’s got him, but Cash didn’t like the cost. The outfield could use some improvement–as the second halves of Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury could tell you–but where is that upgrade coming from? Both Gardner and Ellsbury are locked into contracts, and I’m not sure either is very tradeable right now. Ellsbury certainly isn’t because of his salary and the remaining years on his contract. And though Brett Gardner’s contract is reasonable, a team would really have to love him to make a trade for him. Gardner’s a good player, don’t get me wrong, but he’s probably more valuable to the Yankees now than whatever piece they’d get back in the present (this is mitigated if the Yankees sign a big OF like Justin Upton or Jayson Heyward and flip Gardner for pennies on the dollar).

Of course, there’s also the rotation. David Price is obviously the big target and in prior years, I don’t think there’d be any doubt about the Yankees blowing him out of the water with an offer. However, it’s very possible (even likely?) that the Yankees will view a Price contract as the second-coming of the CC Sabathia contract. Will they try for Jordan Zimmerman as a less flashy option? Will they try for Jeff Samardzija on a pillow contract? This will all go down between November and February before we get into the next phase of narratives: the Spring Training phase.

Who will be invited to Spring Training, both on the veteran side and on the prospect side? Are we going to get another Raul Ibanez or Marcus Thames? Who’s going to headline the new crop of prospects we all dream about? And once all that’s done, the “provisional” roster set, we’ll get to argue about Spring Training battles. This will depend on whom the Yankees sign, but the two biggest ones on the horizon are the aforementioned Ackely/Refsnyder and the rotation, particularly what will happen if Ivan Nova is tendered a contract, how the team plans on using Adam Warren, and what happens with (a hopefully healthy and recovering) CC Sabathia.

While we’re all staring out the window waiting for spring, we’ll definitely have plenty to talk about. What forms do you think the Yankee narratives will take? Who’ll be in or out? What will surprise us most? What will be so obvious we should’ve seen it coming?