On the eve of the Yankees’ return to the playoffs as the host of the AL Wild-Card Game, CC Sabathia released a statement saying that he has checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation facility and will not pitch for the team this postseason. The timing of his departure from the team is inconvenient, but both general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi made clear that the pitcher’s personal well-being has to take precedence, and that he has the full backing of the organization as he begins treatment.
In his statement, Sabathia, who last pitched on Thursday—the night the Yankees clinched a wild-card spot and uncorked their champagne—did not offer details about what precipitated his decision to seek help at this time, citing a desire for privacy even while stressing his accountability and his status as a role model. From his statement:
“I love baseball and I love my teammates like brothers, and I am also fully aware that I am leaving at a time when we should all be coming together for one last push toward the World Series. It hurts me deeply to do this now, but I owe it to myself and to my family to get myself right. I want to take control of my disease, and I want to be a better man, father and player.
...“As difficult as this decision is to share publicly, I don’t want to run and hide. But for now please respect my family’s need for privacy as we work through this challenge together.
“Being an adult means being accountable. Being a baseball player means that others look up to you. I want my kids—and others who may have become fans of mine over the years—to know that I am not too big of a man to ask for help. I want to hold my head up high, have a full heart and be the type of person again that I can be proud of. And that’s exactly what I am going to do.”
In his statement, Sabathia made no connection between his decision to enter rehab and his involvement in an altercation outside a Toronto nightclub in mid-August. Nor did Cashman, who addressed Sabathia's absence at a Yankee Stadium press conference on Monday afternoon. Cashman, who learned of Sabathia’s plans prior to the team’s final game of the regular season on Sunday afternoon, applauded the 35-year-old pitcher for his courage in coming forward and expressed the organization’s support. According to the New York Daily News’ Mark Feinsand, Cashman said: "CC has demonstrated a great deal of courage.... Time [and] place have no bearing. There's something here that needs to be taken care of.… We will do everything in our power to support CC."
Manager Joe Girardi and teammate Alex Rodriguez both expressed their support on Monday as well. Via NJ.com’s Brendan Kuty, Girardi said that Sabathia is “like a brother," and added, “If CC is a guy who can step up in a situation like that, I hope it gives other people confidence to step up." Said Rodriguez, “We play for CC now."
Performance-wise, Sabathia has just completed a third straight season marked by injuries and limited effectiveness, going 6–10 with a 4.73 ERA and a 4.68 FIP in 29 starts totaling 167 1/3 innings. Those struggles, largely due to degeneration in his knees as well as the mileage on his left arm, have derailed the six-time All-Star and former AL Cy Young winner from a pursuit of 300 wins and a spot in the Hall of Fame. But even amid this year’s unimpressive numbers, Sabathia has pitched significantly better in the second half of the season, with a 3.63 ERA and five quality starts out of 12, compared to a 5.47 ERA and six quality starts out of 17 in the first half. While he spent time on the disabled list in late August and early September due to inflammation in his right knee, he returned with a brace that stabilized his delivery and restored some of his flagging velocity. In five September starts, he posted a 2.17 ERA, though his 3.93 FIP in that span illustrated that he was more serviceable than dominant.
Sabathia’s solid late-season performance made him a lock to serve as part of the Yankees’ postseason rotation in the event that they beat the Astros in the Wild-Card Game, particularly given Nathan Eovaldi’s likely absence due to elbow inflammation, Ivan Nova’s poor first season back from Tommy John surgery and Michael Pineda’s 5.48 ERA and 1.7 home-run-per-nine rate in eight starts since returning from a month-long absence due to a forearm strain. Masahiro Tanaka (3.51 ERA, 114 ERA+), who will start Tuesday, 21-year-old rookie Luis Severino (2.77 ERA, 145 ERA+) and swingman Adam Warren (3.66 ERA as a starter, 121 ERA+ overall) are New York's only starters who prevented runs at a better-than-average clip this year, but they combined for just 51 of the team's starts. Warren appears ticketed for the bullpen as the top righty setup man in front of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, but the loss of Sabathia could force Girardi to reconsider such a move or risk handing the ball to multiple pitchers who have struggled down the stretch.
The Yankees are already entering the postseason at less than full strength with the loss of first baseman Mark Teixeira to a fractured tibia. In the wake of Sabathia’s departure, Cashman deferred any suggestion as to who would replace him until they actually advanced to the Division Series against the Royals. Because of his wild-card start, Tanaka would be unavailable until Sunday’s Game 3 (four days’ rest) or Monday’s potential Game 4 (five days’ rest).
The larger issue is Sabathia getting the help he needs in a timely fashion. Beyond the high esteem in which his teammates, coaching staff and front office hold him even as he’s struggled over the past few years, the team still has an investment in its one-time ace. Based on the five-year, $122 million extension Sabathia signed in March 2011, he’ll make $25 million in '16 and has a $25 million vesting option with a $5 million buyout for '17. That option is tied to the health of his left shoulder, according to the information at Cot's Contracts.
If there’s a silver lining in Monday’s announcement, it’s that Sabathia’s performance could benefit from addressing his off-field problem. But even if the pitcher’s on-field decline is irreversible, he should be lauded for taking the steps to confront his problem. Everything else is secondary.