Mariano Rivera couldn't do it. Neither could Derek Jeter. Now, it is CC Sabathia's chance to walk away from the game with the World Series trophy in his hands.
After signing his one-year, $8 million deal with the Yankees, Sabathia proclaimed that he would be retiring at season's end. The ultimate goal for Sabathia has always been a title, and the core of this Yankees squad has provided the 38-year-old enough for one last shot.
Sabathia is far removed from the hurler that can carry a club on his back, having last thrown 200-plus innings in 2013. However, as fragile as Sabathia's right knee is, he's been able to make no fewer than 27 starts in each of the last four seasons. More importantly to the Yankees, Sabathia has been more than a placeholder at the back end of the rotation in recent seasons.
That said, this final season is a marriage in which each side has expectations of the other. Sabathia: a title. And the Yankees: a veteran leader ready and willing to leave it all (whatever all might be for a 19-year veteran) out there in his final season.
As Sabathia fought injury and alcohol addiction, he set out to reinvent his pitching style. The transformation from hard-throwing dominance to wily, gritty pitcher is not as easy as one might think, and it took Sabathia time to figure out this was the route to take to extend his career and then plenty of patience to complete the task.
The Yankees did not re-sign Sabathia to be a cheerleader. The fact the southpaw will be the backbone of the clubhouse atmosphere for the pitching staff is undeniable, but the Yankees fully expect Sabathia to contribute on the field. The club absolutely needs Sabathia.
New York's rotation appears to be an above-average group when taken as a whole, possessing potential domination in some hurlers and some upside across the board, but the true issue with the rotation is what comes after the front five? The answer: no assurances. This makes Sabathia's ability to stay on the field all the more important to the Yankees.
More than taking the ball for his scheduled starts, Sabathia must minimally navigate the opposition's lineup twice through, where anything six innings or beyond shall be considered a bonus. For as much talent as the Yankees might have in their rotation, pitching deep into games is not among their collective forte, thus creating an innate stress on the bullpen. Consequently, Sabathia's five-and-fly efforts will have to be the bare minimum, knowing that others in the rotation are unlikely to pick up the slack to alleviate bullpen work.
Performance-wise, Sabathia has virtually perfected producing soft contact, which has allowed him to be a more than competent starting pitcher. That said, his place on the roster seems more about aiding the club in the regular season by providing quality innings at the backend than it does as an option should the club make the postseason.
Realistically, it's essential for the Yankees to have Luis Severino and James Paxton heading a playoff rotation with one of J.A. Happ or Masahiro Tanaka ready to be the third man. This isn't to say that Sabathia couldn't aid the club as a starter in a postseason series, knowing the bullpen would be the key at that stage of the season, but the Yankees' expectations likely do not align with Sabathia on the hill to start a World Series game.
And this is where the discussion turns to what the Yankees -- front office, coaches and teammates alike -- can give to Sabathia.
There's no doubt Sabathia remains ultra competitive and wants to contribute, but it also seems as though he realizes that he's become part of the support mechanism while the rest of the group is required to carry the load. In part, the change in Sabathia's overall mindset began when he finally understood his pitching repertoire necessitated a transformation. Once he accepted his role and how to best attain his peak performance, his contribution was once again sufficient, maybe even surpassing assumptions.
So, like any marriage, each side relies on the other. The Yankees will not succeed without Sabathia producing similar results to his 2017 and 2018 measures. In turn, Sabathia will not realize the full benefit of his final season -- a championship -- if the rest of the club cannot do its part.