03/26/09 7:05 PM ET
Honor carries big responsibility for CC
Two opening assignments just some of the pressure lefty will face
When Yankees manager Joe Girardi announced on Thursday that Sabathia would start both the 2009 season opener on April 6 and the first game at the new Yankee Stadium on April 16, this was not a particular surprise. You don't bestow upon a man the largest pitching contract in history -- seven years, $161 million -- and then make him your fourth starter.
But the one thing you never know about a player who is traded to the Yankees, or purchased by the Yankees, is how the player will respond to the pressure of playing in baseball's largest and most persistent spotlight.
The pressure upon Sabathia will be immense, but it will not be brought on only by the expectations that accompany $161 million, although that pressure alone will be substantial.
A modestly successful season will not suffice, because this Yankees team is structured differently than those of recent seasons. Those teams depended primarily on a terrific offense, and if they had a shortcoming, it was starting pitching. With the 2009 Yankees, starting pitching has to be a legitimate strength.
It is distinctly possible that a rotation consisting of Sabathia, Chien-Ming Wang, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain will be exceptionally good. But anything much less than that won't work.
There was slippage in the Yankees' offensive output last season. Key performers are getting on in years. More playing time is being lost to injuries. And now, of course, Alex Rodriguez will be temporarily unavailable due to hip surgery.
Rodriguez may have been a huge distraction to the Yankees early in Spring Training, following the revelations of his use of performance-enhancing substances. But he remains a major investment, and thus a major asset for this team. In the lineup, his sort of talent cannot be replaced. While he is out, the Yankees will have to find a way to compensate for his absence. Since it is not reasonable to expect that the lineup will improve without him, maybe the starting rotation could take it up a notch or two.
On the surface, there are few indications that Sabathia will be derailed by high expectations or rising expectations or any sort of expectations.
He pitched well enough in 2007 to win the Cy Young Award in the American League. He was the ace of the staff and a leader for a very good Cleveland team.
His work with Milwaukee in the second half of 2008 was the stuff of legend. Not only was he throwing superb games, complete games and shutouts, but at the end, he was regularly pitching on short rest. More than any other single player, Sabathia was responsible for Milwaukee ending its 26-year postseason drought.
The man was both a workhorse and a thoroughbred at the same time. And his timing was also impeccable. He entered free agency coming off the best work of his life. The Yankees desperately needed a top-of-the-rotation starter. This combination added up to a truly recession-proof existence for the Sabathia family.
Within baseball, Sabathia is highly regarded both personally and professionally. He is the type of personality and performer who can serve as a rallying point for the rest of the roster.
If there has been a criticism of him, it has stemmed from a positive trait. He takes responsibility. He is accountable. But the belief exists that he might take on too much responsibility for big starts, such as postseason starts. So he might, in popular parlance of the game, "try to do too much."
The record will show that in five postseason starts, Sabathia has a 7.92 ERA. On his side of the argument, this is a small sample size. And his losing start in a 2008 National League Division Series against Philadelphia can be rationalized by the way he was used down the stretch. At that point, he was probably lucky to be able to pick up a baseball, much less throw one.
In any case, the vast majority of Sabathia's career says that he will be fine regardless of the circumstances, while a small but highly visible portion of his career says that there can be a question here.
But this is the eternal issue that must be raised with any player who is new to a New York team, no matter how terrific the rest of his career has been: Can he handle this one-of-a-kind pressure?
For Sabathia in 2009, the pressure will be even greater than usual. His performance will need to be good enough to justify all that money. And his performance will have to be that of a true ace in a truly substantial rotation.
Sabathia has typically been just what his teams needed him to be, regardless of venue. How will it go for him in the Big Apple? It always takes time to judge these matters, but starting on Opening Day, and then opening the new Yankee Stadium, CC Sabathia won't exactly be easing into his new landscape.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.