A bit lost in the Albert Pujols hoopla -- update: still a Cardinal -- during the first days of spring training was the first signs of waffling by CC Sabathia. After two years of insisting that there's no way he would exercise his opt-out clause, Sabathia backed away from that stance, saying only, "I have no idea. It's still in my contract, anything can happen."
Opt-out clauses are the most player-friendly part of baseball since groupies. If a star is outperforming his contract, he can exercise the clause and go back on the market for more money and years. If he isn't, he can stay with his current team under the terms of the original deal. An opt-out clause all but assures that a team cannot win a long-term contract -- a good investment in a player will go up in smoke in the time it takes to fax in the paperwork voiding the deal.
The Yankees have actually benefited from one player's opt-out clause. Well, in theory. Whipping boy A.J. Burnett exercised his after the 2008 season, walking away from the last three years of a five-year, $55-million contract with the Blue Jays to sign a five-year, $82.5-million deal with the Bronx Bombers. The opt-out clause was worth nearly $50 million in additional money to Burnett. Alex Rodriguez exercised his own opt-out after the 2007 season, leaving three years and $81 million on the table and eventually signing a 10-year, $275 million contract in its stead, a gain of nearly $200 million in guaranteed money!
This situation may be different because of the risks presented by the 6'7", 290-pound Sabathia. This week's news about his weight loss aside, Sabathia is a big guy who puts strain on his back and legs with each pitch. As he said this week, even leaving 25 pounds behind just gets him to his listed weight of 290 to start the spring. There have been precious few pitchers with Sabathia's size in baseball history. Just 30 pitchers since 1901 have come in at at least 6'4" and at least 260 pounds, and of that group, Sabathia is far and away the career leader in everything. Just three pitchers meeting those criteria have ever thrown a thousand innings in the majors, with active hurlers Carlos Zambrano and Aaron Harang joining Sabathia. Take away the height requirement and drop the standard to 250 pounds, and you still see Sabathia at the head of a group that includes just seven who pitched one thousand innings.
One of the arguments for signing Sabathia two winters ago was that he carried his weight well. His demonstrated athleticism made it easier to project some longevity onto his then 28-year-old body, and for two years, the Yankees' bet on him has worked out well. Sabathia has made every start the Yankees have asked of him, 68 in the regular season and another eight in two postseasons. He's racked up two top-four Cy Young finishes and MVP votes in both years, leading the AL in wins in both campaigns. The contract, through two years, has worked out as well as could be expected.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results, however. Sabathia is already the most accomplished large pitcher in baseball history, and not by a little bit. There have been 17 pitchers in MLB history listed at 270 pounds or above; Sabathia has thrown more innings than the next three guys on the list combined. If you throw out listed weights and think of some examples of heavy pitchers, you get people such as David Wells, who battled health problems in the second half of his career, or Rick Reuschel, who had a late-career burst but was not a star for most of his 30s. It's not unfair to wonder how much longer Sabathia will be a starter worth $23 million per season.
This is why the Yankees need to look at Sabathia's opt-out not as a problem, but as an opportunity. The best-case scenario for them is exactly what it was on the day he signed: three years of top-tier performance followed by Sabathia electing free agency, voiding the four years at the back of the contract, Sabathia's early 30s, where the risk profile changes. To get a pitcher of Sabathia's caliber for his age 28-30 seasons -- and only those seasons -- is a dream. After all, a team doesn't go to seven years on a contract for a pitcher because it wants to, but because it has to.
If Sabathia opts out, the Yankees can get out from under four years and $92 million worth of risk, and put that money towards a pitcher with a significantly different risk profile. Given the pool of pitching talent that will be nearing the majors in 2012, they could use the money in any number of ways. What's nearly certain is that any alternate use of the money will be less risky than Sabathia's age 31-35 campaigns.
As to what the Yankees could do with that $23 million per year, well, spending it immediately might be difficult. Sabathia, should he opt out, would lead a fairly weak free-agent market desperate for him or for Albert Pujols to spark it. The Yankees could invest in a newly-available Pujols, shuffling Mark Teixeira to DH and shooting for a thousand-run offense, while filling the rotation hole with a combination of Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Andrew Brackman and others from their newly-deep well of young pitching. Without Pujols, the savings on Sabathia's contract may not be so easily spent immediately, but rather, applied to future free agents such as Zack Greinke, Jered Weaver, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain, all of whom could be available after 2012.
Opt-out clauses rarely work for the team. In this case, however, the changing risk profile of a unique pitcher, one who has already gone where no pitcher his size has gone before, could turn this one to a benefit for the Yankees, who could end up paying for some of Sabathia's best work and find themselves off the hook for what comes after that.