post on Monday about Yu Darvish, Larry made an important point about CC Sabathia, one I'd like to re-emphasize here: The big lefty is the best player on the Yankees.
In 2009, a swath of players were in competition for that title (which is a big reason why the club won the World Series). In 2010, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira all saw their numbers decline to varying degrees. When asked to name the best player on the Bombers in 2010, most fans would have argued Robinson Cano, but no one would push back against the suggestion that the best player was actually Sabathia, given his importance as the team's Ace. Furthermore, he has been the best Yankee over the past two seasons, every bit as good in pinstripes as he was advertised as being before the team made him the richest pitcher in baseball.
Cliff Lee is two years older than Sabathia and has spent more time on the DL during his career than CC. He just signed a five-year, $120 million deal. In the process he got the Yankees to make him a variety of contract offers, some rumored to be as long as seven years at $23 million per year. Given that the Yankees just showed their hand to an older, less durable pitcher, why, exactly, won't CC exercise his opt-out clause at season's end to get an additional $30-$40 million from the Yankees?
Sabathia has told anyone who will listen that he is happy in New York and will not opt-out of his contract, but how serious can he be? Sabathia will be paid an astounding $97 million over the last four years of his current deal. That's a lot of money for him to gamble with, but he knows what a pitcher of his caliber is worth to the Yankees. At the end of 2011 he will still be younger than Lee was during his free-agency bonanza, when his smallest contract offers from the Yankees were for five years and $125 million. If Sabathia pitches as well in 2011 as he did in 2009 and 2010 he will be in a position to earn himself an additional $40 million or so, on top of the $97 million that he is currently guaranteed, if he opts-out. That's why I expect him to do it. When was the last time you turned your back on $40, let alone $40 million?
CC's free-agency price tag would have little to do with his baseball performance, and more to do with Yankee desperation. The team would simply not be in a position to let him walk. Even if Sabathia has a down year he would still likely find himself in a position to extort an additional $10 million from the Yankees, but market economics aside, how much could CC command based on the value of his performance alone?
In a world that excluded Yankee desperation as an input into the size of Sabathia's new contract (that input being worth about $789 million -- give or take -- as far as I can tell), two factors would influence the size of the deal: (1) Sabathia's perceived longevity and (2) Sabathia's recent value.
Sabathia is believed to have the potential for incredible longevity, both within a season and from season-to-season. He has never pitched fewer than 180.1 innings in a season in his entire career. He hasn't pitched fewer than 190 innings since 2004. Over the past four seasons the big-man has pitched 241.0, 253.0, 230 and 237.2 innings respectively.
Sabathia has proven himself to be as big an innings eater from year-to-year as there is in all of baseball. That kind of durability means that even in a bad season (for him) he'd probably be worth at least $10 million. He could have a dud year or two over the lifetime of a seven-year contract and still be more likely than most pitchers to earn his paycheck on the strength of his up years.
Some alarmists may point to Sabathia's weight to argue that he is more of an injury risk moving forward than his statistics suggest, but it is hard to ignore his track record. Despite the weight, CC has gone his entire career without any major injury. In order for CC not to pitch for another six or seven years his injury pattern would have to change dramatically.
In addition to nailing the longevity input of the big contract, Sabathia also hits a home run on the value side of the equation. Sabathia has become somewhat of a different pitcher with the Yankees, relying more on his slider and changeup to induce groundball outs in exchange for the strikeouts he relied upon before joining the Bombers. As a result, it makes the most sense to project his future value against the value he has demonstrated the past two seasons.
That projected value is tremendous. In 2009, Sabathia was worth $28.4 million and in 2010 he was worth $20.4 million, according to Fangraphs (CC's 2010 was almost identical to his 2009. This translated to slightly less value given the improvement in pitching throughout baseball in 2010.) That suggests an average-annual-value of a new contract of at least $24 million. Furthermore, expanding the analysis out further actually raises the annual salary Sabathia could command. In 2007 he was worth $28.9 million and in 2008 he was worth $34.4 million.
Taken together this confirms that CC Sabathia could easily command an annual salary of $25 million for five to seven years, if he were to opt out of his current deal with the Yankees. He doesn't even need to match his exceptional performance from recent seasons to earn such a contract in 2011.
He is so important to the Yankees, and has established so dominant a track record, that he need only avoid injury while pitching to a 115 or so ERA+ in 2011 to demand a five-year, $125 million deal. If he laces 'em up this coming season and once again busts out a 135 to 140 ERA+ season the way he has done the past few years, while accumulating 225+ innings over 34 starts then he would find himself in a position to demand a blank check from the Yankees. Under those circumstances not even a seven-year, $175 million deal would be out of the question.
I love everything about CC. I love his performance. I love his attitude. He wants the ball in big situations, and delivers when he gets it. He's a leader in the clubhouse. For these reasons I believe him more than I would any other player when he says that he has no intention of opting out of his contract at the end of the 2011 season. Only when I run the numbers I find myself second-guessing the big guy's honesty. It's not that athletes never leave money on the table; it's that athletes seldom leave a potential $30 to $80 million on the table. Prove me wrong CC. Prove me wrong.