Sabathia key to Indians' future

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – No one, at least not yet, has had the gall to make the call.

In this, the offseason where the best pitcher on the planet, Johan Santana, is being dangled, where 26-, 27- and 28-year-olds with Eukanuba Show-level pedigrees – those would be Joe Blanton, Dan Haren and Erik Bedard – are available, not one executive has bothered engaging the Cleveland Indians about American League Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia, a free agent after the 2008 season.

"Maybe," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro theorizes, "it's out of respect."

True, Cleveland was one victory away from the World Series and returns a loaded team that could conceivably collect the franchise's first championship in 59 years. And yet the goings-on this offseason – the plethora of prospects teams are offering for frontline starters and, conversely, the dollars those starters continue to garner – make it feasible to at least consider.

For, like, a second.

"It does because of the things we've done in the past," Shapiro said, his back finally clear of the welts he took when, seven months into his tenure as Indians GM, he traded ace Bartolo Colon. In return, he got Grady Sizemore, one of the game's best players, Brandon Phillips, another star, and Cliff Lee, a future rotation arm, though, at the time, he might as well have acquired Larry, Curly and Moe.

Of course, that trade ignited the Indians' rebuilding process, launched Shapiro's reputation as a wheeling-and-dealing savant and positioned the Indians as primary challengers to Boston, Los Angeles and New York, the scary team built on just $75 million a year.

"We're not in this thing just to be perennially competitive," Shapiro said. "We're in this to be a championship team."

In other words, sorry, Charlie – or, in this case, Brian and Theo.

For, like, a few months.

During that time, the Indians will try to work out a contract extension with Sabathia's agents, Scott Parker and Brian Peters. Though they've yet to begin discussions, Shapiro intimated that he plans on reaching out to the agents perhaps as early as this week.

"C.C. certainly has had a great time in Cleveland," Parker said, "and if we can work something out, he'd like to stay there."

If they can't – Shapiro mentioned that he'd prefer to have something in place by the end of spring training – the Indians' stance on keeping Sabathia could soften, depending on what kind of deal Parker and Peters propose.

Should it line up with the three-year extension worth between $50 and $55 million that San Diego's Jake Peavy is about to sign, the Indians could conceivably shoehorn it into their budget. Were Sabathia to pursue a contract more like Barry Zito's – seven years, $126 million for a far inferior pitcher – Cleveland could not compete, not even for a left-hander who throws 99 mph, posted a six-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio and, at 27, should be entering his prime.

Oh, and then there's the potential Santana deal, which could creep into the $22 million-a-year range and top out at $25 million.

"It's not a question of which contract's more relevant," Shapiro said. "It's the question of whether we can strike a good deal."

Actually, the other contracts are rather relevant, because the market, no matter its silliness, dictates dollar values. It helps that Parker, Shapiro and the Indians' crack assistant GM, Chris Antonetti, have a great working relationship, dating back to the Manny Ramirez days, continuing to Sabathia's previous deals and culminating in July, when Travis Hafner hammered out a four-year, $57 million extension.

And Cleveland, following a slight post-Colon lull, has built itself into a model franchise, the type of place where players want to play. Sizemore, Hafner, Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta signed on long-term, as did Jake Westbrook, and the Indians control Fausto Carmona, Asdrubal Cabrera, Ryan Garko and Franklin Gutierrez for another five seasons.

"The point we start to threaten our ability to build a team around a player," Shapiro said, "we don't sign the player."

Shapiro will draw that line if the Indians fade, which, with injuries or regression or who knows what, remains a possibility. But then and only then, even if it means a lesser offer than what the Yankees would give today (Phil Hughes and Jose Tabata or Austin Jackson, one official said) and what the Red Sox might propose (Jon Lester and Justin Masterson, two potential top-of-the-rotation starters).

Because, as one GM asked, "Who would you rather have this year? Sabathia or Hughes?"

Sabathia, naturally, especially if the Indians believe they can navigate the roughshod AL.

Though, really, it's better to answer a question with another question.

What would you rather have? Sabathia and Carmona as your Nos. 1 and 2 this year, or Carmona and Hughes as your Nos. 1 and 2 for five years?

"In a market like this, it's always a balance," Shapiro said. "There's no black-and-white answer. You've got to always think about the future. You've got to always manage your roster.

"In this case, we've got a tremendous window."

So Shapiro is primed to pry it open as long as he can, whether for a second, a few months or, he hopes, a long, long time.

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