While we’ve all been calling for CC Sabathia‘s removal from the starting rotation for some time now, I don’t think any of us were rooting for an injury to be the reason he got removed. Unfortunately that’s exactly what happened yesterday and now the Yankees are left to scramble again to keep their pitching staff whole while Sabathia is likely to hit the DL and ponder where he goes from here.
The condition of Sabathia’s right knee has been a red flag all year, with 2 drainings having already taken place and a cortisone shot administered recently. In Andrew Marchand’s article on the injury yesterday afternoon, Sabathia himself basically admitted that he’s been protecting the knee all season and that his decision to say “screw it” and pitch as hard as he could without focusing on protecting it was the reason for his recent uptick in velocity. There’s a lot of moving parts to this latest setback, so let’s break it down in terms of short and long-term effects to make it more manageable.
Shorter Short Term– In the immediate short term, not much really changes for the Yankees. They were already planning to activate Michael Pineda from the DL on Wednesday, presumably to work in a 6-man rotation for the foreseeable future. With Sabathia out, Pineda will step back in and the rotation will just continue along as a 5-man. Bryan Mitchell has already started pitching again after his scary on-mound incident last week, so the option of a 6th starter remains open should the Yankees decide to go that route in September. They keep their rotation rest plans intact and Sabathia rests the knee to see if he can return this year.
Longer Short Term– The loss of Sabathia could put additional strains on an already hard worked bullpen. The rotation hasn’t provided a lot of length all season, and we’re still a week away from rosters expanding. Even if Pineda coming off the DL on an 80-90 pitch limit his first time out is a better option than a 100% healthy Sabathia with no pitch limit, the cumulative effect of multiple starts of 5-6 innings in a week isn’t going to help Joe give more rest to his relievers that need it. Not that Sabathia was providing much length anyway. He’s been one of the biggest drains on the bullpen all season. But him being out does diminish the overall depth of the pitching staff, and that’s never something you want or need when you’re in the middle of a pennant race. If Sabathia is going to be out for more than 15 days, that’s more slack for everybody to pick up.
Shorter Long Term (2016)– The question of whether or not Sabathia is even going to come back this season is a fair one to ask given the history of that knee. As of the timing of this post, we still have not heard an official diagnosis on the nature of the injury. I imagine we’ll get the results of yesterday’s MRI and that diagnosis later today, and depending on the severity there could be some impact on next year. If Sabathia was holding back and pitching at less than full effort all year to protect his knee, there’s little reason to expect that to change next year. The sad truth is that Sabathia’s knee might not be physically capable of standing up to the rigors of pitching anymore, and if that’s the case then the Yankees can’t afford to keep him in the rotation. He’s no help to the team if he can’t pitch at full strength and pitch effectively every time out and it doesn’t sound like his knee will allow him to do those things in a starting role. So if he isn’t a starter next year, what do the Yankees do with him?
Longer Long Term (2017)– If we’re assuming that Sabathia won’t be able to pitch as a starter anymore because of his knee condition, it’s worth wondering if he’ll be able to pitch again at all. He has that 2017 option in his contract that vests as long as he’s not hampered by shoulder injuries, but if he really isn’t physically capable of pitching at 100% max effort and risks further damage to the knee every time he does, is that worth hanging around for? Serious knee injuries don’t get better as pro athletes get into their mid-30s and Sabathia sounds like a guy who already knew this one wasn’t going away or getting better any time soon. He’s got 50 million reasons to try to hang around and collect a paycheck, but CC is a pretty prideful guy, not exactly the type who would want to stick around and collect said paycheck while being a pitching punching bag. It wouldn’t shock me if this injury and the continuing problems with the knee forced him to walk away.
There were a few last glimmers of hope that CC could turn things around heading into this season, but after this latest knee injury those glimmers have all been snuffed out. We’ve now got a sample size of about 60 starts and 400 innings pitched over the last 3 seasons that says CC Sabathia is not a good starting pitcher anymore and a degenerative knee condition that says his body can’t hold up to the physical toll of starting pitching anymore. Of course we’re all in “wait and see” mode until the results of the MRI come out, but at this point it would be foolish to think Sabathia can come back from this and be even a league average pitcher. This is another reminder that time catches up to us all, and it certainly appears to have caught CC and grabbed him by the back of his baggy baseball pants.