CC Sabathia's role in Yankees' rebuild remains unclear

CINCINNATI -- CC Sabathia is probably the biggest sports fan in the New York Yankees’ clubhouse, if not in all of baseball. He loves the Oakland Raiders and often tailgates before their games. He is a huge NBA fan, frequently sitting courtside and relishing the action. He loves everything about big-time sports.

“I think it’s what he really lives for, is to compete and to fight, to go out there and pitch,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

But for the fourth straight start, Sabathia wasn’t right. He gave up a five-spot in the second, then managed to grind it out through the sixth, but it wasn’t good enough. The Yankees’ six-game win streak came to a halt in a 5-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds.

Girardi said he will have patience with Sabathia, reasoning that the big lefty just needs to find his cutter earlier and everything will be OK. Sabathia didn’t have it in the second, and the Reds took advantage.

“For whatever reason, it was leaking over the plate,” Sabathia said.

Sabathia desperately wants to be part of this rebirth of the Yankees. In a season that has started in near perfection for the up-and-coming team, there is now a question of how big a part Sabathia will play.

Sabathia led the Yankees to their most recent world championship in 2009, but age and attrition have taken a toll on his left arm. With a fastball that travels in the low-90s at best, Sabathia can’t afford to have his go-to pitch absent for an inning.

“It seemed like he didn’t find his cutter until later on,” Girardi said. “Once he did, it got a lot easier.”

Although Girardi will never say it, Sabathia’s spot is beginning to be in question. In his past four starts, his ERA is 9.58, which even this offense cannot consistently overcome. They have split those four games.

Sabathia will turn 37 in July, and it is not certain whether he will be in the Yankees’ rotation by then. He is owed $25 million and provides leadership, but the Yankees know they might have something special going on this year, so Sabathia will receive only so many chances. The Yankees will not pull him from the rotation yet, but his ERA must drop from 5.77, or there will be a time when he is not part of the five-man rotation.

The Yankees have some young starters they could try in Sabathia’s place, but none of them offers any guarantee of being better than the old lefty. Luis Cessa, Chad Green and Bryan Mitchell are all guys who could replace Sabathia. The backs of all of their baseball cards are incomplete.

The eventual solution if the Yankees stay in contention and Sabathia continues to fail is a trade. The Yankees have said all along that they are trying to win this year, and the Steinbrenner ethos of the organization will likely embolden them to go for it.

To what degree is yet to be determined. It is almost unthinkable that the Yankees would trade Gleyber Torres, the second-best prospect in the game, according to ESPN’s Keith Law. But Clint Frazier on down might be had in the right deal.

Sabathia will be given more rope as the Yankees hope the pitcher they saw in his first three starts will re-emerge. Sabathia was 2-0 with a 1.47 ERA in his opening three acts, which made it feel like the reclamation that began last season could continue. But now the bottom has dropped out.

“He’ll find it,” Girardi said.

His next chance will come Tuesday in Kansas City. There will be plenty of time to work on things until then.

One thing is certain: Sabathia will fight. The mind is still willing. The body? Well, that is still an unanswered question.

“He competes as well as anyone I’ve ever been around,” Girardi said. “He has a big heart, that guy.”