CC Sabathia’s season is likely over, Yankee manager Joe Girardi admitted prior to the Yankees’ 6-5 win over the Twins in Minneapolis Friday afternoon. Sabathia, who has been on the disabled list since mid-May with degenerative changes in the cartilage in his right knee, is facing possible microfacture surgery, raising concerns that his current knee problems could be career-threatening. Even if Sabathia’s doctors don’t recommend that course of action, however, his 2014 season is likely over. “I think that’s fair to say,” Girardi told the media on Friday.
Sabathia did not pitch well before hitting the disabled list this season. Just two of his eight starts were quality and he hit the DL with a 5.28 ERA having allowed ten home runs in 46 innings, roughly twice the league-average rate. That followed a disappointing 2013 season in which Sabathia led the majors in earned runs allowed posting career-worsts in ERA (4.78) and home runs allowed (28) and his first below-average ERA+ (84). Sabathia’s decline was both preceded and accompanied by a drop in velocity, suggesting underlying physical problems. Using the data at BrooksBaseball.net, from 2011 to 2014 Sabathia posted the following annual average fastball velocities: 94.8, 93.3, 92.4, 90.8.
Sabathia had surgery to remove torn cartilage from his right knee at the end of the 2006 season and had a torn meniscus in that knee repaired after the 2010 season, but hadn’t reported any further issues with the joint until this year. Knee problems aren’t surprising for a player as heavy as the 6-foot-7 Sabathia, who has topped 300 points in past seasons. In fact, the combination of his size and his heavy workloads made them almost inevitable. From 2007 to 2012, Sabathia led the major leagues in regular season innings pitched and went to the postseason in all six of those seasons, adding 101 1/3 more innings to his total. As a result, he averaged 250 innings per year between the regular and postseasons over that six-year span despite hitting the disabled list twice in 2012 (with a groin strain and elbow inflammation).
Sabathia has shed a considerable amount of weight in recent years, inspired in large part by the death of his cousin from heart disease at the age of 45 after the 2012 season. He may have lost too much too fast that offseason, however, as he blamed that weight loss that winter for his lack of stamina and strength in 2013. When he shed another 40 pounds this offseason, it was supposedly a more deliberate part of an effort to get in shape and regain that strength, but the continued decline of his velocity and effectiveness proved those efforts to be in vain.
Sabathia, who turns 34 later this month, once seemed to have a legitimate chance of reaching 300 wins in his career, but now we’re forced to wonder if he’ll ever get past his current 208. The Yankees, meanwhile, are faced with the possibility that Sabathia’s five-year, $122 million contract, negotiated after he opted out of his previous deal after the 2011 season, could prove to be an even worse investment than the $275 million over 10 years they committed to Alex Rodriguez after Rodriguez opted out after the 2007 season. With Sabathia’s 2014 season all but officially over, he has gone 17-17 with a 4.87 ERA (82 ERA+) in the first two years of that deal, a replacement-level performance per Baseball-Reference’s WAR. The Yankees owe Sabathia a guaranteed $48 million over the next two years, and the only way to prevent his $25 million option for 2017 from vesting is for Sabathia to suffer an injury to his pitching shoulder, which won’t happen if he can’t pitch due to a knee injury.
In the short term, the Yankees certainly would have liked to have had Sabathia back as they struggle to stay in the playoff race (they are three games back in the AL East, 3.5 back in the wild-card race), but given his decline, there was no guarantee that he would have been effective even if his knee did allow him to return. Nonetheless, the Yankee rotation is desperate for reinforcements. With Ivan Nova also out for the year following Tommy John surgery and Michael Pineda unlikely to return until August, the Yankees have been employing David Phelps, Vidal Nuño and Chase Whitley in their rotation with middling-to-awful results. Whitley, who had a 2.56 ERA after his first seven major league starts, has given up 17 runs in 10 1/3 innings over his last three, failing to pitch past the third inning in Minneapolis on Friday afternoon, while Nuño has gone 2-5 with a 4.89 ERA in 14 starts and hasn’t had a quality start since late May. Phelps has been the middling one.
That Nuño remains in the rotation speaks to the organization’s lack of pitching depth. It also positions the Yankees as a team that will be going hard after rotation help as the deadline season heats up. Unfortunately for them, two of the top starting pitchers on the market, the Cubs’ Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, just got traded to the A’s, which may be just as well given the Yankees’ lack of valuable trade chips.