TAMPA, Fla. – CC Sabathia(notes) tried. He really did. He said for the longest time that he wasn't going to exercise the opt-out clause in his contract after this season. He said it knowing that only two types of ballplayers would actually follow through on such a promise: the injured and the idiotic.
The prospect of hurting his arm is the same as always. Sabathia does something blatantly unnatural about 100 times every five days. Pitchers break down. Though seeing as Sabathia reported to his third camp with the New York Yankees on Monday 25 pounds lighter – fare thee well, Cap'n Crunch – and with his bionic left arm that logged more than 2,000 innings before his 30th birthday still intact, his chances are less likely than most.
Which takes us to the other issue at hand, one that can be summarized quickly: CC Sabathia is no idiot. He is no fool, no dummy. And though this may be blood curdling to Yankees fans, get used to this idea: Sabathia will opt out and become a free agent.
This statement is not based on anything Sabathia said – or didn't say – Monday when he took questions before the Yankees’ first spring workout. It is pure logic.
After this season, the Yankees will owe Sabathia $92 million over four more years. He will turn 31 in July. Cliff Lee(notes), 32, received a six-year, $140 million offer from the Yankees this offseason. So the market for Sabathia, with his track record being longer than Lee's and his ability to pitch in New York proven, would start at those numbers. Compound that with the Yankees' lack of anything else close to a No. 1 starter and a weak free agent pitching class, and Sabathia could ask for an even bigger deal than the seven years and $161 million the Yankees gave him as a 28-year-old.
Moreover, the Yankees showed with Alex Rodriguez(notes) they have no qualms about re-signing a player who opted out of huge guaranteed money. A-Rod left more than $100 million on the table, and the Yankees rewarded him with a 10-year contract at an even higher average annual value than the original.
Unless the Yankees break their policy of negotiating only with free agents, Sabathia will hit the market after the World Series.
There is no moral or ethical quandary here. Sabathia owes the Yankees nothing, certainly not loyalty. Were his arm to blow up, the Yankees would just as soon get rid of him. The fans have treated him well because he has treated them well with his production. If Sabathia pitched like Carl Pavano(notes), fans would count down the days until his contract ended.
Sabathia is in an impossible position from a PR standpoint. If he says he's staying, then opts out and leaves, he will incur unmentionable wrath, the sort that goes against his nature as a people pleaser. If he says he's opting out, Yankees fans will treat him in the same fashion some Cardinals fans are already treating Albert Pujols(notes) – as a traitor.
So he's taking the in-between route, the safest – and the likeliest to cause consternation during the season. When first asked about the opt out Monday, Sabathia said, "I'm here," and he kept repeating it, as if that meant anything about being here next year. He couldn't deflect the question that easily. Pressed later, he said: "I have no idea. Anything's possible."
Optimistic though he is – "It's not going to distract me at all," Sabathia said – his thinking is ever wishful. If the storyline steals all of the attention on the first day of spring training, a long season of games isn't going to make it go away. Yankees manager Joe Girardi pondered how it could affect his team, already with a rotation that has holes in the Nos. 4 and 5 slots, and said: "Does it become a distraction … as the year moves on? It could, depending on how much people want to talk about it and depending on how much he's willing to talk about it."
Sabathia's willingness matters not. People will want to talk about it because the possibility horrifies the Yankees. The best pitcher on the free agent market next season likely will be Japanese star Yu Darvish. Teams are increasingly wary of Japanese starters after Boston's disappointment with Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes) and Kei Igawa's spectacular flameout. Even if the Yankees' trove of young pitching develops quicker than expected – and Manny Banuelos(notes), Dellin Betances, Andrew Brackman(notes), Hector Noesi, Ivan Nova(notes) and others are tantalizing talents – the prospect of a $200 million team with Phil Hughes(notes) as its ace is very real.
Don't think Sabathia lost weight this offseason just to lessen the wear and tear on his knees. He knows that carrying around 315 pounds, as he did last season, would give enough teams pause to slim the market for him as a free agent. Sabathia said he wants to pitch another eight to 10 years. Getting there is much easier on a seven-year deal than the other possibility, trying to find a team that will lock him up long-term as a 35-year-old with more than 3,000 innings on his arm.
So the Yankees' winter of discontent yields to a spring of fear: that the rotation won't stack up, that age will bite this ballclub and that come the end of the year, Sabathia will join Pujols and Prince Fielder(notes) in a free agent bonanza coming after a new collective-bargaining agreement in which the union is pushing for revenue sharing that allows larger-market teams to spend more.
When the Yankees courted Sabathia after the 2008 season, the opt-out clause cinched his decision. He wasn't sure how he'd like New York and how New York would like him, and it gave him a trap door in case the relationship fizzled. It hasn't. Sabathia is as big a part of the Yankees as Derek Jeter(notes), Mariano Rivera(notes), A-Rod and Robinson Cano(notes). He loves New York. New York loves him.
But he's no idiot. Sabathia knows what's good for himself, for his fellow players, for everyone except the Yankees.
He's opting out. There's no other choice.