One can argue the Yankees should have been prepared for CC Sabathia to break down during his seven-year deal, which was advanced by a two-year extension. Unfortunately, Sabathia's troubles developed much sooner than the club hoped and encapsulated three full seasons as he battled injuries and diminished effectiveness. Sabathia finally discovered how to pitch without a power fastball, which led to a comeback season in 2016. Can he finish off his contract with a strong 2017 season?
How did Sabathia fare in 2016?
Sabathia entered the 2016 season with skeptical optimism based on his last handful of starts in 2015. He had been fitted for a knee brace which provided him the ability to pitch while limiting stress on his surgically-repaired right knee. The brace provided Sabathia confidence in the landing of his delivery, which allowed the left-hander to concentrate on his transformation into a finesse pitcher.
Despite the great results in late-2015, questions remained about Sabathia's ability to translate them into a full season. He answered the call, making 30 starts in the process. Sabathia tossed 179 2/3 innings, generating a 3.91 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 7.6 K/9 and a 3.3 BB/9. He allowed 1.1 HR/9 (a continuing issue, though better than previous seasons), but he induced a weak contact rate of 24 percent, which was among the best in the league.
Sabathia's production vaulted him back into the top part of the rotation after three years of dismal performance. He experienced two extremely fine stretches in 2016 -- one which encompassed May and ended in mid-June (0.71 ERA, 6 GS, 38 IP) and another as he finished the season (2.37 ERA, 8 GS, 49 1/3 IP), showing he once again had the capacity to handle major league hitters.
How will Sabathia fare in 2017?
Sabathia had yet another cleaning out of his restructured right knee this offseason, but at this point those have been commonplace for the 37-year-old. Knowing that Sabathia understands how to work his body through spring training likely affords the Yankees some confidence that the veteran will be ready in time to try to replicate his 2016 effort.
The Yankees will be reliant on Sabathia to be the No. 2 starter behind the club's ace, Masahiro Tanaka. The role comes as much by default -- considering the inconsistency of Michael Pineda and the inexperience of the young pitchers expected to occupy the fourth and fifth starter spots -- as it has to do with his reinvention on the mound.
Aside from Sabathia's health, I believe he has the ability to pitch to the role's expected performance. The pitching transformation process has been completed, and the worry of throwing all out is gone -- courtesy of the knee brace.
Sabathia is no longer a seven-inning pitcher, but the club should have plenty of bullpen options that can compensate for his shorter outings. I envision a healthy Sabathia making 28-30 starts, working 165-180 innings, and generating an ERA in the 3.80 to 4.00 range with a strikeout rate in line with 2016.
It would benefit Sabathia if he was able to reduce his walk rate back to his career average (2.7 BB/9 before 2016), thus countering any increase in hits allowed per inning. Finally, should Sabathia once again generate a high soft-contact rate, it will continue to aid the fact that he no longer has shutdown ability.
Simply stated, the Yankees need Sabathia to stay on the mound and allow the young hurlers to grow into their roles. Sabathia will no longer dominate hitters with overpowering stuff, but he has learned how to manufacture outs with his "new" repertoire. At this point, Sabathia benefits from maintaining the desire to be an ace, but without the requirement of pitching like one.
Sabathia has stated that he wants to pitch beyond the 2017 season. He'll have to take a significant pay cut, and it might not be with the Yankees, but if Sabathia reaches the metrics above, he'll have a very reasonable chance to prolong his career.