Sabathia shoulders burden of Yankees' staff
Veteran lefty is focal point of talented yet unproven rotation
TAMPA, Fla. -- Nobody recognized the 6-foot-7 giant among men, standing outside the Colosseum and basking in the brilliance of Roman architecture.In fact, everywhere CC Sabathia went in Europe this offseason, he managed to stay under the radar. Be it walking down the Champs Elysees with his wife, Amber, or tasting wines in Tuscany, he remained anonymous. "There was just one other guy who's a soccer player who recognized me, and I kind of recognized him, in a restaurant," Sabathia said with a smile. "That was it." Sabathia's Parisian and Italian excursion, which doubled as a celebration of Amber's 30th birthday, will likely stand as the last time Sabathia goes unnoticed for quite a while. Perhaps he'll again be anonymous next winter, when the Sabathias plan to go on a South African safari. In the meantime, the leading man in the Yankees' rotation escapes no eyes. Because while that rotation has seemingly been augmented by the offseason acquisitions of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, Sabathia's stature in the starting five and his overall importance to this ballclub is unchanged.
After all, both Kuroda -- who made his pinstriped-pants debut on a wind-swept Wednesday afternoon at George M. Steinbrenner Field -- and Pineda come with caveats. Kuroda is making the transition from the National League to the American League and, just as notably, from Dodger Stadium to Yankee Stadium, so the park and lineup factors can conceivably be counted on for an uptick to that 3.45 ERA he compiled over four seasons in L.A. It won't be the 13.50 ERA Kuroda now sports after a rough opening outing in the Grapefruit League, but it will be higher than 3.45. And Pineda? He's got park factors of his own to consider after calling Safeco Field home his rookie season. More alarming, perhaps, are reports of decreased velocity readings here in these nascent stages of camp after his velocity noticeably dipped down the stretch in 2011. But beyond all that, there's the mere matter that he's a 23-year-old kid still refining his third pitch -- a changeup -- and still learning how best to attack the opposition every fifth day. Sabathia's been there. Though he broke into the bigs with a 17-win rookie season with the Indians in 2001, finishing second to Ichiro Suzuki in AL Rookie of the Year Award voting, Sabathia spent the ensuing years toiling away and tweaking his secondary pitches and learning the ins and outs of his routine before finally establishing himself as a truly elite arm in his 2007 AL Cy Young Award-winning season. "Probably 2006," he said when asked when it all clicked for him. "I had the knee surgery in '05, and I came back the next year with no problems." And so Sabathia had nearly 1,000 big league innings under his belt before he finally felt that trifecta of comfort, competence and confidence on a Major League mound. There's a lesson there for Pineda, whose locker at the Yankees' spring complex, not coincidentally, neighbors that of Sabathia. "Just let it happen," Sabathia said. "It gets frustrating at times, and it's tough, because you can't figure out why you can't be the guy you want to be right away. But if you just stick with it and work hard, you have enough talent to make it happen." That the Yankees exceeded the assumed sum of the talent in their rotation last year was all well and good, but this club was obviously not content to rest on those laurels going into 2012. The arrival of Kuroda and Pineda has altered the outlook considerably from a year ago. "Everybody's talking about our rotation," Sabathia said. "Last year, we came into Spring Training, and everybody said it was going to be a problem, and we finished fourth best in the league [actually fifth, in terms of starters' ERA]. Now, it's up to us to live up to the hype. We've definitely got the talent in here. It's up to us to go out and show it." But make no mistake: Though the Yanks have done their best to ease the burden, the fact remains that the pressure still sits on Sabathia's broad shoulders. By now, Sabathia's well-accustomed to that notion. But while his leadership acumen is beyond reproach, it is worth wondering how long his arm can withstand the repercussions of the role. This is a man who, even in an age of pitch-count prominence, has averaged 256 2/3 innings pitched (between the regular season and postseason) in a five-year span that began in '07. The "old school" among us can appreciate the endurance, but Sabathia's effort is so above and beyond the norm in today's game that alarms go off when that tally is tabulated. "I think if I didn't have pitch counts and innings limits when I was young," Sabathia said, "I probably wouldn't be able to handle all I can handle now." How well he handles it in 2012 will go a long way toward determining the Yanks' fate (and we're talking, to be clear, about how deep they go in October, because their mere presence in the postseason is all but assured, especially with the addition of another Wild Card team in each league). Sabathia's right knee soreness and slight slide in the second half last season -- when he posted a 3.44 ERA in 13 starts after a 2.72 ERA in 20 starts in the first half -- was concern enough for the club to advise him to get serious about dropping some pounds this spring. Now that the Yanks have committed at least another year and $30 million to Sabathia -- on top of his initial seven-year, $161 million contract -- they are wise to protect their investment as best they can, and Sabathia, who is brown-bagging it every day of camp with portion-controlled meals prepared by a personal chef, has noticeably slimmed down a little. But these things are best judged over the long haul of the season, as was proven last year. A year ago, Sabathia was slimmer and had sworn off Cap'n Crunch, but by year's end, he appeared to have gained back whatever he lost, and then some. Perhaps the Cap'n made a comeback. Whatever the status of his own weight, the weight of the Yankees' rotation still rests primarily with Sabathia. Yes, he has a stronger supporting cast these days. But given those aforementioned warnings about Kuroda and Pineda and in a rotation that also includes Ivan Nova entering his sophomore year and a two-way battle for the No. 5 spot between still-unproven Phil Hughes and 35-year-old Freddy Garcia, Sabathia remains the one sure thing. And the Yankees sure hope he continues to deliver. "Being able to perform at a high level the older you get, you don't take that lightly," Sabathia said. "You hope you can keep doing it. I'm just going to keep playing this year and keep going. I don't think I'm that old. I'm 31. But I've been around a long time. Hopefully I can keep up that level of pitching."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.