Sabathia should thrive early in pinstripes
After nearly four weeks of awaiting his response to the Yankees' reported six-year, $140 million offer, listening to rampant speculation that he preferred to play closer to home, on the West Coast, and that he'd rather remain in the National League, CC Sabathia decided to take the money and run. But not before the Yankees beefed up their offer, apparently; ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney reported Wednesday that Sabathia will accept a seven-year, $160 million deal to don the pinstripes.
Speculation was the name of the game in the Sabathia sweepstakes this offseason. Surely by now you've read all the angles: his weight, his pitch counts the past two seasons, the pressure cooker that is New York baseball, his postseason record, his desire to pitch on the West Coast. I know I have. And I have one response:
I love this deal.
Yes, that probably seems like an easy statement to make, coming from a lifelong Yankees fan. Rampant homerism; I get it. But one of the objects of fantasy baseball is to put the heart to the side and let the brain do the talking. Break down this deal -- no matter your team allegiance -- Sabathia is a New York Yankee beginning in 2009, and it's hard not to get excited. Certainly not as far as fantasy baseball is concerned.
Some might bring up parallels to the Yankees' trade for Randy Johnson before the 2005 season, perhaps the most similar offseason pitching acquisition, and the fact that he didn't live up to expectations. However, the case could have been made that Johnson would disappoint. He was 41 years old, and didn't exactly make the best first impression, with that whole incident with a cameraman on a New York street. You could see -- to a point -- the writing on the wall. With Sabathia, there's the possibility he'll be slow to adapt to the bright lights of New York, but the guy is 28, in the prime of his career, and coming off a Cy Young-caliber season. (Plus he won one the year before, in 2007.)
But to be fair, there's a caveat to my Sabathia seal of approval: He's a pitcher, and a seven-year deal, carrying him through his age-34 season in 2015, probably isn't the smartest long-term investment. There will come a time during the lifetime of the deal when the Yankees -- and their fans -- will probably regret the investment, at least a little. Mark it down: By 2012, maybe sooner, maybe later, there will be a time when anti-Sabathia sentiment is all the rage.
That brings up the aforementioned "warning signs"; first and foremost, his weight. Sabathia is listed at a hulking 295 pounds, ranking him among the heaviest players in big league history. (Walter Young, who played one season for the Orioles in 2005, was the heaviest, at 322.) There has been a lot of concern that Sabathia's physique might eventually cause him to break down. That might be possible, but the guy does keep himself in playing shape, and Yankees fans will be quick to remind you that David Wells averaged 17 wins in four years in pinstripes despite a similar physique. It's a concern, but probably not until CC at least gets that 30th candle on his birthday cake. (Spare the cake jokes, please.)
Next concern: Sabathia's recent workload. Between the regular season and postseason, he has amassed 513 innings the past two seasons combined, leading the majors in the category both years. He has totaled 7,398 pitches during that span, easily tops in the bigs. But you've heard this all before. The Yankees will need to monitor Sabathia's workload more closely than either the Indians or Brewers did. Plus, they likely won't allow him to complete 10 of his own starts or throw him numerous times on three days' rest. For that reason, the structure of the Yankees' bullpen is important in evaluating Sabathia for both 2009 and beyond, especially how the team deals with filling Mariano Rivera's shoes in the next several seasons. (Joba Chamberlain, anyone?)
How Sabathia handles the New York spotlight is anyone's guess. A-Rod has handled New York respectably enough. Mike Mussina did. Randy Johnson did not. Javier Vazquez did not. So if there's any worry regarding Sabathia in 2009, any at all, this is the one.
As for the lesser concerns: postseason record -- well, that doesn't exactly matter in fantasy, fortunately. Besides, A-Rod has generally been a successful Yankee despite some forgettable Octobers. Being away from home? Many people work far from home, and it's not like Cleveland is next door to California, anyway.
Total up those warning signs -- no matter how small they might seem today -- and it's easy to believe there will come a stinker of a year (or two, or three) during the lifetime of Sabathia's deal. Keeper-league owners, keep those nuggets tucked away.
For 2009, though, mark it down: Sabathia will be one of the strongest 20-win candidates in baseball. He joins a Yankees team that averaged 4.87 runs per game in 2008, among the top 10 in baseball, after finishing a season with a Brewers team that averaged 4.63. Also, the Yankees, as evidenced by Sabathia's own deal, are willing to invest in improving their team. There might not be a team more likely to keep its offense in the ballpark of five runs a game annually, meaning the bulky lefty should be a fairly consistent 20-win candidate for as long as he can stay consistently healthy during his deal.
Does that make Sabathia the No. 1 pitcher off the board in fantasy leagues? Probably not. Johan Santana and Tim Lincecum are perhaps safer choices pitching in the National League. Having the Red Sox and Rays in his division does keep Sabathia a little behind those two in the all-important ERA and WHIP categories, but make no mistake: He's a clear top-five starter for next season, and probably No. 3 at the position. So long as you don't overrate him, forecast a 25-win campaign or pick him in the first round, Sabathia will make a fine ace for you. Slotting him in the top 25 overall isn't unwise.
Just don't ask me where I'd pick him in 2012, at least not today. Give me Sabathia in the first two or three rounds in each of the next three seasons; after that, all bets are off.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.