TAMPA, Fla. -- The reality of the situation hits CC Sabathia as precisely as one of his old 95 mph fastballs used to find the black of the plate. He is no longer the ace with the rocket arm that has earned him around $200 million, a World Series ring and a Cy Young Award over his career.
He has been a champion, pitching on short rest on the verge of free agency in 2008, and then leading the New York Yankees to a World Series win in 2009, again putting his team before his long-term health.
Now, though, in 2016, with more than 3,000 major league innings (including the playoffs) and with a fastball that struggles to reach 90, Sabathia is another guy -- albeit with a $25 million salary -- trying to win a fifth starter spot.
"We are going to take what we think are the five best, bottom line," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
An injury could make Girardi's decision for him, but if it doesn't it will certainly come down to Sabathia or Ivan Nova. Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino and Nathan Eovaldi are going to be in the rotation, if healthy.
Sabathia, despite having the best resume, is still applying for a job. He did not help himself on Sunday as he only lasted 1 2/3 innings, allowing three runs, two earned, on five hits. His fastball once again had trouble inching over 90 mph, and that leaves him vulnerable when his slider is off, as it was Sunday. This was a step back after first outing against the Marlins in which he threw two scoreless innings and looked pretty good.
Sabathia feels and looks better physically, as he deals fully with his continued recovery from alcoholism that he made public in October.
The Yankees know they can't give away games with a roster that has potential but needs to squeeze out every win it can if it is going to advance to October. Sabathia said he understands his reality and what the Yankees are thinking.
"It is what it is, man," Sabathia said. "I"m 35 years old. I've thrown a lot. We are here trying to win, so it is what it is."
Sabathia has logged 2,988 regular-season innings, none as a reliever. Girardi said if Sabathia doesn't earn his place, he will likely be in the pen for the first time in his career.
"If you don't make the rotation, you are probably in the bullpen," Girardi said.
Sabathia needs to be able to finish off hitters. He has had spurts -- starts here, innings there -- where he has looked like he could be serviceable, only to take steps back. A knee brace he used in his final five starts in September last season helped him repeat his delivery and pitch to a 2.17 ERA over his final 29 innings.
"For me, it is just health, feeling like I can repeat my delivery," Sabathia said. "I feel like I'm on the right track."
It has to get there pretty fast, because if Nova shines in this his free-agent year, Sabathia could be out of the rotation to begin the season.