Sabathia's price tag could go up, and up

NEW YORK -- There's a foreboding sidebar to how great ace CC Sabathia has been pitching for the New York Yankees and how the rest of the club's starters are not, and it's getting lost in the countdown to Sunday's trade deadline. If the Yankees don't land another significant starter between now and Sunday, it won't simply affect how the rest of this season goes. It also will hugely affect their offseason because it's a near certainty that Sabathia is going to opt out of his contract at the end of this season.

Which gives the Yankees two reasons to squirm if Sunday comes and goes without a significant trade.

The Yankees' dependence on Sabathia has always been high, but it's never been higher than this year. So can you imagine how the bidding for him might escalate when he exercises his right to void the remaining four years and $92 million left on his current contract?

Any guess-timates only get crazier when you consider how Yankees management hasn't always been on the same page in recent years when the pressure on certain personnel decisions kicks up. Remember the A-Rod opt-out/makeup melodrama, the extra year Hank Steinbrenner impulsively promised Jorge Posada when the Mets seems poised to pounce with an offer four years ago, the nastiness before Derek Jeter re-signed this winter, and general manager Brian Cashman announcing that he didn't recommend signing reliever Rafael Soriano? What made that especially extraordinary was that Cashman volunteered it at Soriano's introductory news conference.

Now, barring some shocker deadline deal for someone such as the Seattle Mariners' Felix Hernandez -- who was in the opposite dugout Tuesday night as Sabathia nearly threw a perfect game in extending the Mariners' franchise-record losing streak to 17 and picking up his 15th win this season -- Sabathia has all the leverage. The Yanks have next to none, particularly if the Mariners and other teams keep insisting their aces are unavailable. Boston has a sizable amount coming off the payroll this winter and could constitute the sort of credible, deep-pocket threat to the Yanks that could drive Sabathia's price tag even higher.

So seriously, how high could it go?

"Five years, $30 million per," a former major league GM who's still in regular contact with his peers emailed back Tuesday.

Staggering, right?

To put that in perspective, $30 million a year is the high-end estimate of what some baseball insiders think St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols might be able to get this winter as a free agent -- emphasis on "might" because he'll need a team such as the Cubs to get involved -- and it's about $2 million less than what another every-day player, the Yanks' Alex Rodriguez, makes this season.

Rodriguez's $32 million in salary this year is the highest in baseball history. But his annual pay actually starts declining after this season.

The seven-year, $161 million deal the Yanks originally gave Sabathia made him the highest-paid pitcher in the game. And it's understood the Yankees will have to give him that status again to keep him.

How can they not?

Sabathia is the best signing of Cashman's tenure as Yankees GM. Remember how Cashman had the option but passed on chasing Johan Santana because Sabathia was on the horizon a year later? All Sabathia has done since is post a 55-20 record for the Yanks, chew up innings, and establish himself as everything an ace and a team leader should be. Meanwhile, Santana broke down for the Mets.

The opt-out clause Cashman gave Sabathia was to quell Sabathia's worries about liking New York. But that's not an issue now. Sabathia has settled in and doesn't seem to want to leave. It's just smart business for him to void the remainder of his original deal.

But yet another reason the Yanks are still haunted by twice not getting Cliff Lee goes beyond how much they could use the Phillies lefty on the field.

It's the lost leverage and fallback plan Lee might've given them, and how he's now setting the market for Sabathia.

Lee's contract with Philly tops out at $25 million a year, beginning in 2013. He'll be the Phillies' highest-paid player until slugger Ryan Howard's salary increases to $25 million in 2015, matching Lee's.

Sabathia -- who already makes $24.28 million annually through 2015 on his current contract -- will go blowing right by Lee's deal. Especially given that 31-year-old Sabathia is one year younger than Lee and has already delivered the Yanks one World Series ring.

But again, how high will it go?

The numbers could get crazy, all right. The Yanks' last talks with Sabathia were a high-stakes game of chicken. When the pressure to re-sign him spikes this winter, the various powerbrokers in Yankees management could go their separate ways again. They've done that before. Excluding Mariano Rivera, it's hard to remember any recent Yankees teams needing to retain one player as much as they now need Sabathia. And after seeing Cashman miss out on Lee because of which prospects he wouldn't give Seattle at last season's trade deadline -- and how that dogs the Yanks still -- will he keep the same refusal to overpay in prospects if someone's ace surprisingly becomes available this time around?

The lonelier Sabathia looks in the Yanks' rotation, the more the Yanks must squirm.

Sunday's trade deadline is bearing down. And Sabathia's price just keeps ticking up.