TAMPA, Fla. -- New York Yankees ace CC Sabathia surprised a few folks Monday by not guaranteeing for the first time that he wouldn't use the opt-out clause in his contract. But that shouldn't shock anyone. Sabathia has always done the smart thing, and it wouldn't be good business not to use a clause that could benefit him greatly. Or at least threaten to use such a clause.
"I have no idea," Sabathia said when asked about the opt-out clause and whether he could utilize it. "Anything's possible."
Sabathia has said in the past that he has no intention of opting out. And that's probably true. But the threat of the opt-out is invaluable to a pitcher of his stature, especially in a market with a paucity of true No. 1 pitchers available. And Sabathia as a free agent next year would be like Cliff Lee was this past winter. In other words, teams -- with the Yankees at the top of the list -- would be falling over themselves to sign him.
"He said what you'd expect," one American League executive said. "Everyone should expect him to use what he has, including the opt out."
"He has a lot of leverage,'' said another AL general manager.
The great likelihood is that Sabathia remains in pinstripes. Executives interviewed Monday expect Sabathia to stay, but perhaps with another year or two added to his contract. He may even try for more than that. He also mentioned a couple times that he'd like to play another "eight to 10 years," and he slimmed down to 290 from 315 partly to improve his chances to do so. (He did look noticeably thinner.)
Sabathia wasn't very easy to read the first time, when everyone, including former teammates, assumed he'd prefer to avoid New York and that he would instead sign for a team in California, his home state. But that was before he signed a seven-year deal, $161 million deal with the Yankees. Now, of course, the Yankees were easily the high bidder. But nothing that's happened since that would suggest he was ever reluctant to come to New York.
And nothing that's happened since would suggest he doesn't love it, either. He predicted LeBron James would come to the Knicks and hoped Cliff Lee would come to the Yankees, too, and while he admitted being "oh for two" on that score, he has become a fan of the city. He and his family, West Coasters from Vallejo, Calif., have settled into a ritzy suburb of New Jersey in a house he built with such incredible detail and style that it was recently featured in Architectural Digest. Is he really leaving that house for the next Yankee to take over payments?
While it seems implausible now that he leaves, assuming he has his usual year -- and why not assume that, he seems to have the same year every year -- he'll be in position to add, say, two years at the same $23 million to his contract. The same opt-out clause gave A.J. Burnett the chance to sign a contract that tripled his previous career earnings, and it allowed Alex Rodriguez the chance to break his own contractual record.
Of course, both of those players signed with the Yankees after exercising their opt-out clauses. While the opt-out will likely help Sabathia, there aren't going to be a lot of places that will top $23 million a year, if any. Assuming the West Coast is something he still prefers, the San Francisco Giants have no great need for more pitching and prefer the draft and develop method for obvious reasons (they are better at that), the Los Angeles Angels don't have the stomach to try to steal a Yankee at this financial level and the Los Angeles Dodgers are, in the words of one competing executive, "close to insolvent" (that may be a slight exaggeration, but they presumably don't have that kind of money lying around).
The Yankees are thought to have been by far the highest bidder last time, and while Sabathia has pitched brilliantly the past two seasons, he'll also be three years older by the time the opportunity to opt out comes around.
Then again, he also knows the Yankees can't let him get away. As things stand, 60 percent of their rotation is questionable now. They can't have it be 80 percent questionable.