Was It Worth It?: CC Sabathia

CC vs BAL 2012 The top prizes of this year's free agent crop are 2 upper-echelon starting pitchers in their early 30s.  They're going to command a lot of money and they could command a lot of years from whatever team eventually lands them.  The Yankees are not expected to be seriously in the running for those 2 pitchers, in part because they're feeling the effects of their own-long term contract they gave out to an upper-echelon starter in his early 30s.  CC Sabathia has been the ace of the staff in name since signing before the 2009 season, and the ace in production from 2009-2012.  He's on the books for the next few years and may not be able to pitch a full season or pitch at all again.  So was it worth it?

The Deal- 8 years/$186 million, with a $25 million vesting option or a $5 million buyout for 2017.  Was originally signed as a 7-year/$161 deal on December 18, 2018, then re-done as a 5-year/$122 million extension on October 31, 2011 before his previously-negotiated opt-out clause kicked in.

The Setting- Sabathia was the hottest free agent available in a great class of free agents after having back-to-back monster seasons.  He won the AL Cy Young Award with the Indians in 2007, then pitched even better in 2008 split between the Indians and Milwaukee Brewers.  Sabathia was dealt at the trade deadline and carried the Brewers to the postseason for the first time since 1982, finishing 5th in the NL Cy Young voting and 6th in the MVP voting despite making just 17 starts for Milwaukee.  He was in his prime at age 28 and unquestionably the best starting pitcher in baseball.

The First 4 Years: 2009-2012

  • Pitched to a 74-29 record with a 3.22/3.28/3.41 slash line and 821 K in 905.0 IP over 129 starts.
  • Among all MLB starting pitchers in this span, ranked 2nd in Wins, 3rd in IP, 6th in K, 19th in ERA, 14th in FIP, and 6th in fWAR (22.2).
  • Played in 3 All-Star Games ('10-'12), had 3 Top 4 Cy Young finishes ('09-'11), led the AL in wins twice ('09,'10), starts once ('10), and K/BB ratio once ('12).
  • Won 1 World Series title in 2009 and was the ALCS MVP.  Went 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA in 5 postseason starts (36.1 IP) in the '09 postseason.
  • Gave up 24 ER in 46.0 IP (4.70 ERA) over his next 9 postseason appearances from 2010-2012.
  • Made 33 or more starts and pitched 230.0 or more regular season innings every year from 2009-2011.  Made 28 starts and pitched 200.0 regular season innings in 2012.
  • Got paid $86.86 million in total salary.  According to FanGraphs' WAR value calculator, his 22.2 fWAR was worth $97.7 million.

The Next 4 Years (And Maybe 5): 2013-2016

  • Pitched to a 14-13 record with a 4.78/4.10/3.76 slash line and 175 K in 211.0 IP over 32 starts in 2013.
  • Pitched to a 3-4 record with a 5.28/4.78/3.11 slash line and 48 K in 46.0 IP over 8 starts in 2014.
  • Had a second surgery on his right knee that ended his 2014 season.
  • Got paid $46 million in salary over the last 2 years.  FanGraphs estimated his 2.8 fWAR in the last 2 years to be worth $14.3 million.
  • Is owed $53 million in remaining salary over the next 2 years, which will bring him to age 36, and his 2017 vesting option is tied to the health of his shoulder, not his knee.
  • Sabathia said recently that he's "telling people I'm 100%" and has been throwing regularly.  He will not throw off a mound before Thanksgiving, however, and it is currently unknown if he will be physically ready to start the season in 2015.

As little sense as signing A-Rod to a 10-year deal the previous offseason made, that's how much perfect sense it made to sign Sabathia during the 2008-2009 offseason.  The Yankees were coming off a year in which they failed to make the postseason for the first time in 15 years primarily because they didn't have enough starting pitching.  Sabathia was in his prime, at the top of his game, and by reputation was almost the exact opposite of A-Rod in terms of clubhouse personality and team chemistry.

CC's recent path of regression has also been different than that of A-Rod.  Whereas A-Rod's production and physical declines were more gradual and consistent over the last 5 or so years, CC held his levels at or near where he was at his '07-'08 peak before falling off quickly and dramatically over the last 2 years.  He more than earned his paycheck and gave the Yankees good return on investment over the first half of the deal.  He was one of the best starters in baseball over that timespan, a workhorse starter in every sense of the word, and a major contributing factor to the '09 World Series victory.

He also may have been a ticking timebomb that the Yankees overlooked when they agreed to give him the extension in 2011.  Those 2007 and 2008 seasons stand out not only as the 2 best of CC's career, but also the 2 with the heaviest workload.  He pitched 241.0 regular season innings with another 15.1 postseason innings on top of that in '07, and 253.0 with another 3.2 on top in '08.  Add to that the 266.1, 253.2, and 246.0 IP totals he racked up in his first 3 years in pinstripes and you're talking a really heavy 5-year workload.  That's over 1,250 total game innings of wear and tear on his arm in that span, plus Spring Training, side sessions, and warmup pitches.  More importantly, it was that much wear and tear on his knee.

CC's right knee has been the major source of his health problems and those problems began in 2010 when he was diagnosed with a torn meniscus and had surgery to repair it.  He had a second surgery on it this season after experiencing swelling and fluid buildup, and the word "degenerative" was the one used most when describing the condition of the knee.  There isn't much cartilage left there, which is why the team chose to experiment with stem cell injections as part of his treatment and rehab and briefly considered microfracture surgery.  It has been acknowledged by Yankee front office personnel and doctors that Sabathia's knee might not be able to hold up to the demands of being a starting pitcher anymore.

Knowing that, I can't help but think back to that massive 5-year workload in his late 20s and wonder how much that contributed to the now irreversible damage done to his right knee.  CC has always been a big guy and it seems like the simple physics of shifting and hurling all his big guy weight onto that right knee has worn it down to its current state.  The Yankees were well aware of his previous workload and his size when they initially signed him.  They've encouraged him to lose weight and that's something he's tried to do in multiple offseasons to varying degrees of success.  Knowing all of that and knowing he had offseason knee surgery the year prior, should they have re-thought the decision to extend him?  That's a fair question to ask.  It's also fair to wonder how the knee problems have impacted CC's delivery mechanics and contributed to his other injuries (hamstring, elbow).

Ultimately I think the answer to the "was it worth it?" question for CC is a 2-part answer and a relatively easy one at that.  Yes, it was absolutely worth it to sign him to the initial 7-year/$161 million deal.  They got an elite pitcher for the first 4 years of the deal pitching through the end of his prime years and a World Series title that he helped win.  It was definitely not worth it to extend Sabathia after the 2011 season, however, and definitely not worth giving him the option year for 2017.  You're talking about the difference between this next year being the final year of the deal and having the ability to be more aggressive on the free agent market this offseason, and carrying around a $50 million anchor for the next 2 seasons that might not be able to pitch.