LAS VEGAS – He never expected the Amber alert.
In an offhand offer to satiate the big apple of his eye, New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told CC Sabathia he would fly to San Francisco to visit Sabathia's wife, Amber, and sell her on New York. Cashman figured that was the end of that. Until Sabathia called back Tuesday afternoon and said, yeah, come on over.
And so the fuse was lit. Hours later, Sabathia was a Yankee, guaranteed $161 million over the next seven years unless New York disagrees with him, in which case he can opt out of the contract following the third year. Cashman was back at a hotel in San Francisco catching a wink before hopping on a commercial flight – hey, the economy's tight, right? – and hitting up America's most liquid financial institution, Bank of Steinbrenner.
Ninety million dollars and five years for A.J. Burnett? Entirely possible.
Another $65 million or so and four years for Derek Lowe? Doable.
For all of the bluster about fiscal responsibility, Cashman has spent the last two years preaching, the Yankees could well spend more than $300 million for the second consecutive offseason. After lavishing Alex Rodriguez last year, Sabathia is this season's Christmas gift. Burnett's deal may get done soon if Atlanta doesn't trump the Yankees' offer. And for posterity, Cashman may yank his offers to Sheets and Pettitte in order to lock down Lowe and complete his staff of aces.
What would the Yankees be, after all, without profligate spending? The experiment to build from within lasted all of a year. Big contracts for pitchers are rarely wise – and none has ever been as big, total dollar-wise and average annual salary, as Sabathia's. To top it off, the combined number of postseason starts between Sabathia and Burnett is four, all by Sabathia, who in his last 19 playoff innings has allowed 20 runs.
With a few more convincing speeches, a few passed physicals and three strokes of the pen, the Yankees could soon accomplish what they seem to every offseason: stuff their roster with exorbitant salaries, induct countless orbital strains from all the eyeball rolling and announce themselves relevant once again in that wonderful, James Earl Jones bass.
Bully for the Yankees, of course. If they really can commit as much in consecutive years as some franchises are worth – and do so in the throes of the worst economic climate since the Great Depression – at least offer a nod of respect amid the cries of anger. Creating a cash cow is easy. Milking it for every last drop takes precision.
The Sabathia deal epitomized the Yankees' understanding of their position and ability to exploit it. Sabathia had qualms about taking Amber and their three children to New York, even with a six-year, $140 million offer on the table. Milwaukee was the only other team with a concrete proposal, a year and $40 million less. Still, Sabathia wasn't budging.
So Cashman charmed him, went into his wife's home and recruited her like a college football coach does a skeptical mother, added another year and $21 million to separate the Yankees' offer from anything San Francisco or either Los Angeles team could approach, and got his 28-year-old left-hander with a Cy Young to his name.
The $1 million above $160 million? That lifted the offer beyond the average annual value of cross-town Mets ace Johan Santana, who will enter his second year of a deal that brings him $22.92 million a year through 2013. At $160 million, Sabathia would have gotten an average of $22.86 million. At $161 million, he's paid an even $23 million a year, a tick more than Santana.
Not only that, Sabathia got an escape door should he crumble under the pressure. Which, understand, will come with weight as immense as that which he carries on his frame.
In the recent past, certainly, it has worn on him. During his 2007 Cy Young season, he helped Cleveland gag away the American League Championship Series to eventual champion Boston with a pair of stinkers. Last year, throwing on three days' rest for the fourth consecutive start with Milwaukee, he got lit up by Philadelphia, also World Series winners, memorably unable to put away Phillies pitcher and anemic hitter Brett Myers until Sabathia had frustrated and exhausted himself.
If anything can cast skepticism on such a beaucoup move, it's that. The Yankees won four World Series in five years not just because of their great pitching but their great postseason pitching. Burnett has never started a game in October. Neither has Sheets. Lowe is one of the better playoff pitchers around, his seven shutout innings in the 2004 World Series clincher a standout, and that's why he's fetching four years – and maybe five, if Boston, the New York Mets or perhaps Atlanta gets desperate – despite turning 35 last June.
All of them together, no matter the postseason numbers, would combine with incumbent ace Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain to form the most formidable staff in the American League and, barring a Jake Peavy deal to Chicago, the entire sport. Phil Hughes, who impressed scouts in the Arizona Fall League, provides depth or a trade chip. Likewise for Ian Kennedy, of whom the same scouts weren't terribly enamored.
And once again, after some tweaking of the bullpen and figuring out whether they need one more bat, the Yankees hope to again be the Yankees and not a team that spends October watching eight other teams with less money and fewer resources.
See, that is the beauty and danger of being a Yankee, something Sabathia and two other pitchers will soon learn: There is nothing they can't do, so there is nothing they shouldn't do. It is an unrelenting cycle. Money means players, and players turn into standards, and standards birth expectations, and if those expectations are met, great, pop some champagne and throw some confetti. But if they aren't, then they turn right back into what beget them in the first place: money.
Get it, then, while the getting's good. The Bank of Steinbrenner is open for business, no bailout necessary.