CC derby is about to begin
Hurler is clearly the cream of the free-agent pitching crop
Christmas is still six weeks away, but it is only three days until the New York Yankees can start throwing money at CC Sabathia.
Friday is the day when Major League clubs can began to have contract discussions with free agents who were not on their roster this year. It will officially mark the start of the holiday season in the Sabathia household.
There are many useful free agents on the market this offseason, but there may be none more valuable than Sabathia. He's 28, he's healthy, he's left-handed, he won the American League Cy Young Award in 2007. And then, after being traded from Cleveland to Milwaukee in July, with a wonderful combination of will and skill and terrific timing, he went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in 17 starts for the Brewers. And let us not forget the seven complete games, or the three shutouts.
Sabathia pitched on three days' rest as a matter of course down the stretch, and if he finally ran out of gas in the National League Division Series, against Philadelphia, that was both understandable and forgivable. More than any other player, he made possible Milwaukee's first postseason appearance in 26 years.
The Brewers have made an offer to Sabathia, believed to be for $100 million over five years. For a small-market franchise, that's an astronomical offer, one that cannot be taken lightly. But for the current market, it may not be astronomical enough.
The six-year, $137.5 million contract that Johan Santana received from the Mets, the largest pitching contract in history, might be just the baseline for this round of contract discussions with Sabathia.
There are 30 clubs that would dearly love to have Sabathia starting for them, even if it is every fifth game instead of every fourth. He was a tower of strength for the Brewers in the second half of 2008, he's a good teammate and his durability is beyond question. He might appear to be a little heavy to mere mortals, but maybe he is simply a mountain of a man. He has made 30 or more starts in seven of his eight Major League seasons, and the one time he didn't, in 2006, he made 28. He strained a muscle on a bitterly cold, damp Opening Night in Chicago at the beginning of that season. In that circumstance, in that climate, it could have happened to anybody. CC Sabathia is not a known health risk.
Not every club can afford Sabathia, but this is where the Yankees come in. Not only can they afford him, they really need him.
The Yankees not only have baseball's largest revenues, they have a new stadium opening and lots of money coming off their payroll from last season. And after 13 straight seasons of reaching the postseason, they found themselves in third place in the AL East in 2008. They didn't have enough pitching, particularly starting pitching.
"We have to address our pitching staff, our starting rotation especially," general manager Brian Cashman said recently. "That's first and foremost."
So there is the marriage of need and ability to pay. The Yankees need a legitimate top-of-the-rotation pitcher, and they can afford to pay whatever it takes to get him. Sabathia is the best starting pitcher available in the current free-agent class.
The Yankees won't be Sabathia's only suitor. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim would be candidates, although if they sign first baseman Mark Teixeira to a huge deal, they might be less likely to run in the Sabathia derby. The Los Angeles Dodgers would also be likely candidates, as would the Mets. There may well be more clubs that are willing to spend what might be a record amount.
It is possible that Sabathia could sign a discounted deal with the Brewers, but why would this guy have to be Mother Teresa when everybody else is being Donald Trump? Sabathia has said that he was happy in Milwaukee and hoped that he could continue to play there. There is no public record of Sabathia being anything less than genuine, but there is also not much of a track record of top-end free agents leaving mega-millions on the table.
The overall history of big-ticket, long-term pitching contracts would theoretically give any potential employer pause. But every winter, that pause doesn't turn into a halt. In this case, Sabathia is the premier pitcher on the market, and he is not nearing eligibility for Social Security. Caution is probably not going to be the byword in the bidding for his services.
For the pitcher himself, professional life would be easier if he remained in the NL. There is no designated hitter, no lineups with one-through-nine problems posed for pitchers. The difference, even for Sabathia, was notable. He was an excellent pitcher in the AL, but he was a dominant pitcher in the NL.
The Yankees may have the most cash on hand for this deal, but between the persistent presence of the Red Sox and, now, the emergence of the Rays, the AL East will be tougher than ever. Many players dream of playing baseball on the world's biggest stage, but it could be that Sabathia is one of those players who does not believe that he must perform in New York for his life to be truly fulfilled.
Plus, Sabathia really likes to hit, and if you've seen some of the titanic home runs he has hit, you'll understand that he is more than a pitcher with a whim at the plate. This would obviously be another reason for him to stay in the NL.
But in free agency, the money has a tendency to be the defining element of the whole deal. The certainty here is that there will be no shortage of either cash or career options for CC Sabathia, the best starting pitcher in the free agent class of 2008-09.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.