Peter Gammons: Sabathia has to be soul of pitching staff for Yankees to contend

cc sabathia

TAMPA—His career has spanned 13 seasons, 12 post-season series and 205 wins for the Indians, Brewers and Yankees, thrown 2,775 innings for close to $200M, and he has always stood and faced his responsibilities, the definition of accountable. “I know what I am expected to do,” he says, “and I have always tried to fulfill the hopes and the expectations of my teammates and everyone associated with my teams.”

He has devoted much of his free time to kids from New York to his hometown of Vallejo, but nothing has ever distracted him from his teams’ obligations. There was no better example than September, 2008, when, as he headed towards free agency, he understood what it meant to his Brewer teammates and the fans of Milwaukee to make the post-season for the first time since 1982, and, with the contract in front of him, made his final three starts on three days’ rest.

The first year of his megadeal with the Yankees, he helped pitch the Yankees to their first world championship since 2000. In time, the wear of his weight on his hip and his elbow resulted in a worn elbow and a decline in both velocity and performance. Last season, he was 14-13. His earned run average was 4.78. His fourseam fastball that averaged 94.8 in 2009 averaged 91.6.

“I was very aware of how I pitched,” Sabathia said Friday when he reported to the Yankees’ spring training. He came in to assume the accountability of being the guy. Cameras chased Masahiro Tanaka as he walked to the clubhouse and, later, walked to his car. There was the story of Pineda, who hasn’t pitched since 2011. There are stories all around the clubhouse filled with pitchers and catchers. The Yankees expect Hiroki Kuroda at 39 to be a solid mid-rotation starter. They know that Tanaka will have adjustments to pitching on four days’ rest—which he has done twice in two years—and the expectations of being the hot newcomer. They hope Ivan Nova is the same pitcher who won 16 games with a 3.70 ERA in 2011 and was 5-4, 2.78 after the Allstar Break in 2013. They hope Michael Pineda comes back, to some degree.

If all things go right and the infield defense is better than appears, the Yankees are a good enough offensive team to win 90-something games, most things medical going right. Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran are major offensive upgrades, and if Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira can come back, the lineup will be deep and dangerous. If makeup and command (10.4-2.4 K-BB ratio) are indeed the most important qualifications for closing, David Robertson should be fine once he stops being compared to Mariano Rivera; finding an Adam Warren and a couple of others to pitch the seventh and eighth is a work in progress.

But the Yankees need Sabathia to throw 200 innings, and do so better than he threw them last year. Teams seldom win with a half dozen starters. Last year, the two World Series combatants, the Red Sox and Cardinals, used 11 starters in the regular season. The Dodgers used 11, the Pirates 12, Braves 10. Only the Tigers used 6, which makes one watch how Doug Fister’s 32 starts get handed over to Drew Smyly. The Athletics used seven, and two of those seven, Bartolo Colon and Brett Anderson, are gone.

That’s why the Red Sox are slowing down the spring training work of Jon Lester and John Lackey, have six veteran starters and hope to develop one or two young starters for 2015 out of Allen Webster, Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo and Brandon Workman. The Cardinals sometimes seem as if they go into the season with eight starters, and the same is true this spring, without knowing how Carlos Martinez will be used.

Sabathia’s storyline Friday was his weight, down 40 pounds from his prime. More than a year ago, he changed his diet and exercise routine, but the weight did not show positive results. “Because I was coming off the elbow surgery, I never worked on strength, on throwing,” said Sabathia. “As a result, I never really felt right. It wasn’t really the velocity. I don’t have to throw 96 or 98 as I once did. I can pitch. I need to go back using my changeup more often. That was once a good pitch for me.

“But,” Sabathia added, “the most important thing was that because I didn’t have the strength, I never felt comfortable with my delivery. One of the constants of my career was my ability to repeat my delivery. I never did that with any consistency last year.”

What was amazing about Sabathia is that even when he weighed 300-something, he is such an exceptional athlete that he repeated his delivery and pounded the strike zone.

After Sabathia beat the Angels in Yankee Stadium in the first game of the 2009 ALCS, members of the grounds crew showed me Sabathia’s landing hole. One hole. Every stride, every delivery from the 6-foot-7, 300 pounder. “That’s what I lost last season,” said Sabathia. “But by beginning my throwing program in October and working hard to regain my strength, I think I’ll be back to normal again. I think it’s hilarious that people have worried about me losing so much weight. (Trainer) Steve Donahue and I laugh about being ‘the Biggest Loser’.”

In Tanaka’s first day in spring training, C.C. was there to answer the questions, and when Tanaka went out to throw to the clicks of hundreds of cameras, Sabathia was also out on the field, throwing. OK, they may not be the same C.C. he was in 2009, but the fact remains, if the Yankees are going to win 95 games and be back in the race for the high life, again, Tanaka and Kuroda, Nova, David Phelps and Pineda are important, but Sabathia has to be the constant, fulcrum and soul of a pitching staff whose February promises will be a project that will be a process from March through September.