CC Sabathia, former ace
For the first few years after CC Sabathia signed with the Yankees, he provided precisely what a pitcher with his contract should: an unmatchable advantage.
The Yankees signed Sabathia after the 2008 season, badly in need of an ace pitcher to give them the kind of performances that could will the team to victory. Sabathia did that, often, as the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, and returned to the playoffs in three successive seasons that followed.
It's why a team pays $161 million over seven years, as the Yankees did with Sabathia. And it's also why, after Sabathia neared an opt-out date following the 2011 season, the Yankees extended him even further, through the 2016 season, with an easily attainable 2017 vesting option.
But Sabathia simply isn't that pitcher anymore. And the Yankees, since retaining Sabathia, haven't complemented their spending on him with the kind of surrounding talent that makes the long-term contract a worthwhile bet.
So Monday night, the Yankees sent Sabathia out badly in need of length and excellence against the Baltimore Orioles. Multiple relievers are injured. Mariano Rivera threw 35 pitches Sunday, making him unavailable for Monday. And the Yankees, who entered the night 2.5 games back of the final wold card spot, had a chance to both gain a half-game over the idle Rays, and leapfrog the Orioles, a fellow competitor for that final spot.
Sabathia did provide some length, pitching into the eighth inning on 115 pitches. But he was awfully hittable, allowing four runs and two walks. And he was outpitched by Chris Tillman, who is no star, but a perfectly competent top of the rotation pitcher for the Orioles.
This doesn't mean signing Sabathia was the wrong move. He was worth more than $20 million, per Fangraphs, in each of his first four seasons with the Yankees. Players like Sabathia are signed to provide surplus value during peak years, making up for overpaying on the decline side of contracts. But these long-term deals don't work if the team signing them plans on getting peak-level value from players deep into their decline years. Sabathia is 33. Seeing him decline, or even get hurt, shouldn't be particularly surprising, and has to be planned for. The Yankees didn't.
Instead, to follow the Yankee model, Sabathia would be best served by moving further down in the rotation, and younger, in-prime stars brought in could assume the mantle of ace. The Yankees had a pair of models to turn to Monday night, in the Pirates-Rangers game.
In a 1-0 pitchers' duel, the Pirates threw Gerrit Cole. The Yankees drafted Cole back in 2008 out of high school, but inexplicably delayed in approaching him, leading Cole to decide on college instead. Three years later, the Pirates drafted Cole. Monday night, Cole struck out nine in seven shutout innings, helping the Pirates post a winning record for the first time in 20 years.
His opposing number, Yu Darvish, came to the Rangers through the posting process from Japanese baseball. The Yankees failed to submit a competitive bid to earn the right to sign Darvish, who just turned 27, leads the American League in strikeouts, and whose presence alone probably would have the Yankees in the wild card lead.
Instead, the Yankees have done nothing to add the kind of pitcher they badly need with Sabathia fading. The franchise's play here, which has been to just hope for a return to form, echoes what they've done with Derek Jeter at shortstop. It's a strange strategy, and it is costing them in both cases.
“My firmly held belief is that you don’t have to have a $200 million payroll to be world champion,” Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner, apparently hellbent upon proving the Yankees can win without utilizing their bottomless pit of money for some reason, said back in March. “And the historical data that led me to that conclusion is rock solid.”
It's not, but whatever Steinbrenner thinks he's doing instead sure isn't working, with each game the 2013 Yankees play serving as further proof.