Should the Yankees Be Worried about CC Sabathia Opting Out?

Much has been made this week of CC Sabathia’s contract – signed two years ago with the Yankees, Sabathia owns the right to opt out of the remaining 4 years of the contract (years in which Sabathia will earn $23M each season).  Given the state of the Yankee’s starting staff, the general reaction amongst the Bronx faithful is somewhere between panic and despair.  Though the Yankees budget often appears limitless, I think Sabathia’s opt out could be a blessing for the Yanks.

CC Sabathia turns 31 this season, and to date he has proven worthy of his reputation as a front of the rotation workhorse.  Barring an injury, CC will surpass 2300 innings pitched in his career (excluding postseason), which would  put him in elite company.  Only 13 pitchers since the advent of divisional play have thrown so many innings through their age 31 season:

Player IP ERA ERA+
Roger Clemens 2393.1 2.93 148
Greg Maddux 2598.1 2.81 143
Jim Palmer 2474.1 2.53 139
Bert Blyleven 3021 2.96 126
Dave Stieb 2458 3.37 125
Dwight Gooden 2340.1 3.24 115
Frank Tanana 2571.2 3.34 113
Vida Blue 2789.1 3.09 113
Nolan Ryan 2331.2 3.11 112
Catfish Hunter 2423 3.08 112
Frank Viola 2339 3.72 111
Dennis Eckersley 2496 3.67 111
Fernando Valenzuela 2355.1 3.34 107

Not a bad list – 5 Hall of Famers, one soon to be hall of famer (Maddux) and one player with hall of fame numbers (Clemens) and 19 Cy Young Awards.

Now let’s take a look at those careers after age 31:

Player IP ERA ERA+
Roger Clemens 2523.1 3.31 139
Greg Maddux 2410 3.53 122
Jim Palmer 1124.1 3.39 113
Bert Blyleven 1949 3.86 108
Dave Stieb 437.1 3.81 110
Dwight Gooden 460.1 4.87 99
Frank Tanana 1616.2 4.18 97
Vida Blue 554 4.14 91
Nolan Ryan 2917.1 3.25 112
Catfish Hunter 223 4.4 87
Frank Viola 497.1 3.75 120
Dennis Eckersley 789.2 2.96 137
Fernando Valenzuela 574.2 4.4 95

Of course, to point out that pitchers don’t necessarily age well into their late 30s is hardly news; however, our lens for this view is CC Sabathia’s contract, and the 4 years and $92M remaining after the 2011 season.

Of the 13 pitchers that had similar mileage to Sabathia’s at his age, 6 were basically finished by 31.  Catfish Hunter pitched only two more seasons, and Vida Blue, Fernando Valenzuela, Frank Viola, Dave Stieb and Dwight Gooden all threw around 500 innings before hanging up their spikes.  All but Viola and Stieb posted below average ERAs before retiring.  Frank Tanana re-invented himself as a finesse pitcher and managed to post over 1600 innings, but at a below average rate.  At age 32, Eck converted into one of the great closers of all-time.  And Clemens – well, it would appear much of Clemens history has yet to be written.

Ryan (112), Maddux (122), Palmer (113) and Blyleven (108) appear to present the best case scenario for Sabathia’s career arc – all of them remained above average starters and exhibited durability well into their 30s.  In 2010, 9 pitchers posted ERA+ between 108 and 113, a list that includes Jeremy Guthrie, Ian Kennedy and (Yankee fans, please sit down) Carl Pavano.

History, then informs us that there is great chance that Sabathia will breakdown and pitch only a few seasons more.  Beyond the issue of quantity, there stands a good chance that those innings Sabathia does deliver will be below average to significantly below average.   Realistically, there is little to no chance Sabathia will approach $92M in value through 2015, and in every likelihood the only analysis will be how far short he falls.

Where does that leave the Yankees?  It would appear that by crossing their fingers and hoping, Yankees management can hope that Sabathia’s contract only overpays him by 50% over the course of his career, rather than being the total loss that befalls over half the pitchers with as much mileage on their arms as CC has.  Sabathia is probably making a smart decision by opting out – the free agent pitcher class of 2012 is exceptionally weak.  However, if he offers the Yankees an out on the $92M remaining on his contract, the Yankees should celebrate the opportunity to discuss a new contract with Sabathia – at a significantly reduced rate.


About Bill Porter

Bill is an aspiring sportswriter (attorney by day) born in Washington DC, raised in New York, and currently living in San Francisco with his wife Kirsten and two spazzy labs, Fletch and Bear. Follow me on Twitter at @wfporter1972
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5 Responses to Should the Yankees Be Worried about CC Sabathia Opting Out?

  1. dwishinsky says:

    I think that Sabathia likely will be similar to Nolan Ryan and Blyleven, a guy who is a big time strikeout pitcher who learns with age becomes a better pitcher. I think we’ve seen that to a degree with him already. I think Sabathia will opt-out for sure, why wouldn’t he? But I think the Yankees will re-sign him even if they overpay (look at how they overpay Jeter and were willing to do the same for Pettitte – shoot look at the contracts they’ve given LOOGY Damaso Marte in recent years!). The reason is this: Cliff Lee fallout. The Yankees got turned down by Cliff Lee and in a way Andy Pettitte too. They won’t let Sabathia get away even if it is for the organization’s messed up public relation optics. But I think that Sabathia will be overpaid big time at the end of his contract, but I don’t think it’ll be as big a bust as Teixeira is looking at this point or Pujols will be when he is 40, 41 and being paid $30M.

    • Bill Porter says:

      I agree that the only way Sabathia won’t opt-out would be a bad season or injury, etc. And there’s no question that Lee reset the pitcher market (and those arms that come available next season are exceptionally weak). But Lee has literally 1000 fewer IPs than Sabathia, and of course with Sabathia the ever present elephant in the room is how a guy carrying 290 pounds in his 20s (even at 6’7″) is going to age — I know I’m up significantly since I was 29! The Yankees are going to obviously be in the market for a couple pitchers so they will be back in on CC, and I’m not sure I wouldn’t give him a 5 year deal, but not for $125M. On a somewhat unrelated note — do you think the Teix contract is that bad? To date, he’s produced roughly 9 WAR for $40M, so the Yanks are basically getting what they’d expect on the deal — of course, if last year wasn’t an aberration they will struggle and nobody thinks he’s a 5-6 WAR player in his 36 year old season. The interesting thing about the Yanks is that they are seriously old right now — in two years the entire left side of their infield (defensively) will be different (Montero possibly moving over to 3rd and who knows what at SS) . . . and their pitching pipeline is questionable.

  2. dwishinsky says:

    I am total 100% non-believer in Cliff Lee. In 2007 he was demoted to Buffalo and Cleveland won the AL Central w/o him and on the back of Sabathia and Carmona yet we so soon forget. Also his Teflon pitching in the playoffs was undone by a relatively light hitting Giants crew so there goes that. I wouldn’t even have him a’s a top ten pitcher…

    That being said! C.C. will owe him dinner next year! I think CC will get the seven years, and I think he’ll be worth it. He’s a big guy but he seems to be in shape unlike big guys like Zambrano who or David Wells. A seven year deal at 31 carries him through 38 so that last year may be sticky but any power lost C.C. has made up for with better control and I anticipate his control and ability to pitch vs throw will only get better. If I am on any team on baseball I’d bet on Sabathia and give him the deal – even if it meant seven years. He WOULD unquestionably be in my top five pitchers.

    Teixeira has begun his decline. He can’t field, his slow starts are longer. I think last year was a sign of more things to come. My guess 2.3 WAR in 2011.

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