CC Sabathia: A forever Yankee and future Hall of Famer

On Saturday, CC Sabathia will announce in a press conference that after the 2019 season, he will be hanging up his spikes and calling it a career.

The news is not a shock. Sabathia has hinted time and again, both in the media and on his popular R2C2 podcast, that his 19th big league season will be his last. It’s probably the right time, too; Sabathia will be 39 in July, has dealt with a bevy of injuries and doesn’t have much more to accomplish in Major League Baseball.

In retrospect, Sabathia was more than a free agent signee that led the charge to the New York Yankees’ 27th and most recent World Series championship.

He’s one of the best free agent signees to ever don the famed pinstripes.

It’s officially the 2008 offseason. The Yankees were in uncharted waters. They missed the postseason for the first time since 1993. The starting rotation was led by Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte, a Hall of Famer and a Yankee legend, yet well past their prime. Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy failed to live up to their prospect hype, Joba Chamberlain was still a reliever and Sidney Ponson, Darrell Rasner and Carl Pavano had no future in the Bronx.

The franchise was also opening up a brand new Yankee Stadium; and even though the likes of Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada — plus the lore and nature of the very franchise — could sell their new home by themselves, the front office was looking for fresh faces to usher in a new era of Yankees baseball.

These days, fans are killing Hal Steinbrenner for not dishing out money for Bryce Harper and/or Manny Machado.

But those days, there wasn’t a worry when The Boss George Steinbrenner was still running the show.

The interest Steinbrenner had in Sabathia was apparent on the Yankees’ side of the conversation. But it takes two to tango, and there was a time when it seemed like the 28-year-old left hander didn’t feel like dancing.

There were rumors he wanted to return to his roots and play for one of the five teams based in California. Sabathia was also one of the premiere starters in the game, hitting free agency at the perfect time.

It wasn’t going to be easy for Steinbrenner. A decade ago, however, things were different. The organization had no issue flexing their financial muscle over the competition, especially for someone who could help transform the starting rotation for the foreseeable future.

Sabathia was eventually offered a record-breaking seven-year, $161 million contract, one that was well deserved: after being acquired from the Cleveland Indians, he put the city of Milwaukee and the Brewers on his back down the homestretch. Despite realizing there may not be a future in Wisconsin, Sabathia still went 11-2, pitched seven complete games, finished sixth in the NL MVP race and led the franchise to their first playoff berth as a National League ball club and their first since the fabled 1982 AL pennant-winning team. 

That success translated seamlessly to New York. In his first season in pinstripes, Sabathia won an AL-leading 19 games, pitched to a 3.37 ERA and allowed just eight earned runs in 36.1 postseason innings, good for an ALCS MVP award and his first (and only) World Series title. The first four years of Sabathia’s deal really couldn’t have gone any better: he was a three-time All-Star, was 45 games over .500, had a 3.22 ERA and totaled 821 strikeouts as the ace of a Yankees staff that reached the playoffs in each of those seasons while making the American League Championship Series in 2010 and 2012.

But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for the burly southpaw.

Sabathia’s knee issues came to the forefront in 2013 and his once overpowering velocity began to diminish. His ERA ballooned to nearly five runs per game, resembling less of the dominant pitcher he was and more of yet another bloated contract for under-performing talent. 2014 was no better; Sabathia made just eight starts and was unimpressive when on the mound (3-4, 5.28 ERA), thanks to his recurring knee problems.

By the time 2015 rolled around, the Yankees were trying to salvage anything out of their one-time go-to starter. Unfortunately for the organization, it appeared as though Sabathia’s downward trend would continue. While he rebounded and made 24 starts into late August, the losses and ERA totals continued to inflate while health remained an issue.

Many thought it was the end of the road for Sabathia. Sabathia had other plans.

After going on the disabled list on August 23, he took the next two weeks to adjust to a brace on his right knee while fully embracing a switch in pitching style from power to finesse. And it was then when Sabathia’s career took a 180.

He returned to the field and, over the course of his final five starts, pitched to a 2.17 ERA while clinching the team’s playoff berth in his final start of the season.

Between 2016 and 2018, Sabathia became someone the Yankees relied on to end losing streaks, pitch in big games and keep his teammates on their toes in the clubhouse. Despite missing a number of weeks due to maintenance, the veteran has been as important as it gets when on the mound. Embracing his secondary pitches while working the corners, Sabathia has gradually lowered his ERA (3.91, 3.65, 3.61) while sacrificing a rise in walks for a rise in ground ball outs. He may have dropped four spots in the rotation but Sabathia is arguably the most reliant and important fifth-starters in the game today.

With Sabathia’s career coming to an end, it’s interesting to see where he ranks among the greats, both in Yankees history and baseball history.

He’s started the seventh-most games in franchise history and trails only Pettitte, Whitey Ford and Ron Guidry in career strikeouts as a Yankee. He’s also among the top 10 in franchise history in strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio. He leads all active Major Leaguers with 2,986 strikeouts, 3,470 innings pitched and 313 quality starts. He needs 14 more strikeouts to reach 3,000 mark, at which point he would join 14 other pitching greats, all of whom except Roger Clemens are in the Hall of Fame. Sabatha’s distinction would be that he joins Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton as the only left-handers in the club.

But no matter what Sabathia does on the field, his time with the Yankees will largely be remembered for what he did off it.

He’s been a de facto captain since Derek Jeter retired. He’s the first player at the top step of the dugout, whether it’s to congratulate a teammate on hitting a home run or to jaw-jack an opposing team. He’s fiercely loyal, with no moment more evident than when he defended catcher Austin Romine and was ejected after throwing at Jesus Sucre in late September, despite being just two innings shy of a $500,000 bonus. He’s been an outlier for long term contracts; for a team that was spurned by Carl Pavano and Jacoby Ellsbury and Kei Igawa, Sabathia ranks among the best free agent acquisitions in franchise history alongside Mussina and Orlando Hernandez and Dave Winfield. 

When Sabathia does call it quits, he will be remembered for being a warrior. A leader. A consummate teammate. One of the best pitchers to ever wear pinstripes, with a plaque in Monument Park and no one else wearing 52 ever again. And yes, a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate.

But because he always did everything the right way — from the day he signed his seven-year, $161 million contract until the last time he wears the interlocking NY on his hat — he will always be remembered in one way.

As a Yankee.

Dan Federico is a co-founder and senior writer for Bronx to Bushville.

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