CC Sabathia underwent knee surgery last week in which he avoided the more serious microfracture surgery, but still had a bone spur removed from his right knee. The knee will never again be the same due to the degenerative nature of the injury. Sabathia remains in good spirits after the successful surgery, and vows to be ready for spring training in February. However, due to the constant maintenance required of the knee, it is unlikely that Sabathia will be anything more than a fourth or fifth starter going forward.
“We’re all hopeful that [surgery] is going to help but always, that storm cloud is on the horizon that he’s got bigger issues that may rear their ugly head down the line…if he continues to have problems with the knee as we move forward going into next year it’s just an unpredictable circumstance. You’re hopeful but I can’t predict what’s going to happen.” GM Brian Cashman told the media.
An aging pitcher, with no cartilage in his left knee, who has logged a ton of miles on his left arm, and who showed signs of diminished velocity before he got hurt, Sabathia may have his work cut out for him to even be a contributing member of the Yankee rotation next season, let alone for the remaining years on his contract. Sabathia has always shouldered the heaviest workloads in the majors, tossing at least 190 innings every year for a decade, not including the playoffs. He has had some arm trouble over the years, but was always relatively minor. But there can be no doubt that he was not the same pitcher in 2013 or 2014 that he was earlier in his career. His ERA rose as the velocity on his fastball dipped.
If Sabathia has one thing going for him, it is the fact that he is not afraid of reinventing himself as a pitcher. Before the season began, he spent time with Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera developing a cut fastball to add to his repertoire. Much like other former flamethrowers David Cone and Roger Clemens before him, when a pitcher can no longer reach back for a high 90s fastball, they need to learn how to pitch. Cone developed from a fastball-slider pitcher when he came up with the Royals to an 9 or 10 pitch pitcher by time he was throwing a perfect game against the Expos. Sabathia will need that kind of invention now. Sabathia would be wise to use this time before next season to develop new pitches, especially new off speed pitches, as he recovers from the surgery. This will put him in the best possible position to be a valuable member of the rotation for the 2015 season.
If Sabathia is indeed done as a successful starter, his contract will make him all but untradable as he will make $23 million in 2015 and $25 million in 2016 with a $25 million vesting option for 2017. The Yankees could offer to eat a lot of the money, but even then, Sabathia has a no-trade clause in his contract and could veto any deal. Should Sabathia be heathy enough to play, but not effective as a starter any longer, he could also work as a left-handed reliever out of the bullpen, which would probably make him the most expensive LOOGY ever. For his career, left-handed hitters are batting .233 against the southpaw. What, if anything, Sabathia will be able to contribute in 2015 remains to be seen, but the Yankees would be foolhardy to count on Sabathia doing anything more than collecting a paycheck for the forseeable future. They need to look at him as a potential bonus if he can recover from the surgery and return to form, while spending their offseason calculating that he will be spending more time at the Tampa training complex than the Stadium in the Bronx.