The CC Sabathia impact on the AL East

The big story yesterday during the winter meetings was CC Sabathia’s acceptance of the New York Yankees’ offer to become their ace pitcher.

Sabathia will receive a seven-year commitment at a total value of roughly $161 million, although a sizable chunk will go to charity and deferred payments. Regardless, it is the most lucrative contract a pitcher has signed in the history of major league baseball, a contract that will eventually be dwarfed by one of the young pitchers in the game today (my money is on Tim Lincecum).

It also includes an opt-out clause, but we’ll get to that later. Quick tease, though: I fully expect Sabathia to exercise it.

First, let’s get to the impact this has on the arms race in the AL East.

NEW YORK YANKEES

By itself, it doesn’t do anything except take the Yankees from an 89-win team to a 91-win team in my opinion. Of course, this is a pretty significant swing and would have put the Yankees in the thick of the wild card race last year.

I see the Sabathia acquisition not as an improvement per se, but rather as an ability to stay the course. Sabathia went 17-10 last year. Mike Mussina went 20-9. Of course, it’s silly to evaluate a pitcher based solely on wins and losses, but the two are closer than you might think when it comes to the number of wins on the field.

This gives the Yankees a rotation of Sabathia, Chien-Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain, (health risk, as we all know) Phillip Hughes and … Ian Kennedy? It won’t end up as Kennedy once the Yankees get their second pitcher, of course, whether that’s Andy Pettitte, Derek Lowe or A.J. Burnett. But whoever their second pitcher is, it’s going to replace the 2007 Andy Pettitte, so that ranges from an improvement of 0-2 wins.

Offensively, the Yankees at the moment are taking a step back. They’ve lost Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu. They’re going to have to hope Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui rebound. They also are banking on Xavier Nady’s 2008 being the real deal, not his career line suggesting he is an average platoon-starter. Nick Swisher can be thought of as a poor man’s Jason Giambi. They also lack a full-time centerfielder, unless they think Brett Gardner or Melky Cabrera can handle the job.

Long story short, I look at the projected 2009 Yankees team, including Sabathia and whatever their second pitcher is, and I’m not particularly intimidated. They will still be a good team (like they were last year) and should get about 92 wins, but unless they add a serious thumper to this lineup, they may be burned relying on their injured, aging stars much like they relied on their unproven, young starting pitchers in 2008.

BOSTON RED SOX

That said, this signing does have ripple effects across the AL East. For one, the Boston Red Sox now have to be especially motivated to continue to upgrade, whether that’s by signing Mark Teixeira or making an aggressive play for an offensive catcher. If they don’t upgrade, they are still capable of winning the division, but it will be tight. They’ll also probably place additional emphasis on the fourth outfielder having a history of hitting left-handed pitchers well in case J.D. Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury or David Ortiz struggles in that capacity in 2009.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

The Toronto Blue Jays may also consider using 2009 as a restocking phase and shoot for 2010, when their young starters return from injury and they have more flexibility. I would not be surprised to see the Jays quietly concede 2009 right now and trade off Lyle Overbay, B.J. Ryan and other players as the season progresses. For PR purposes, they can’t admit to it or start trading anyone now, but the results on the field will quickly become clear to them.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

The Tampa Bay Rays are perhaps least affected by this, as they can’t afford to get into a pissing match with the Yankees or Sox. Their young core is stupendous enough and their young pitching is deep enough to get the offense that they need that this Sabathia acquisition doesn’t change much except perhaps trying to make sure they have strength from the left side of the plate.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

The Baltimore Orioles are in a tough position. They have a potent offense (that they’re trying to add Mark Teixeira to) but a poor pitching staff. They’re caught in the middle between rebuilding and competing because they can absolutely make some noise if some cards fall their way. This Sabathia acquisition may spur them to make more aggressive offers to current free agents (Teixeira? Burnett?) to keep up with the big dogs.

CC SABATHIA’S OPT-OUT CLAUSE

Now, let’s look at something. Sabathia is slated to receive $69 million over the first three years in a $161 million, seven-year deal. (This is a deal paying an average annual value of $23 million). Given that he is starting his age-28 season and Burnett and Lowe are commanding significant dollars, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to theorize that he could do better than a four-year deal of $92 million, which is what he would get over the last four years of the Yankees’ deal.

In three years, there will be a few changes in the baseball landscape that could impact things considerably. For one, the economy (knock on wood) should be improving, if not out of the gutter, and baseball teams will feel freer to spend. Two, as inflation naturally occurs, the average annual value, while remaining constant, actually declines. On the market, inflation would be adjusted for, so Sabathia would likely receive a raise.

Lastly, the San Francisco Giants will have a year left on Barry Zito’s obscene contract. The Los Angeles Dodgers will be out from under Andruw Jones, Juan Pierre, Jason Schmidt and Casey Blake. Since it’s well known that Sabathia wants to pitch on the West Coast and in the NL to hit, (doesn’t hurt that the NL provides weaker competition) what is to stop him from collecting his $69 million from the Yankees then heading to a big West Coast market and at the very worst, maintaining status quo on his contract?

I don’t think there’s anything to stop him, and that’s why I think that Sabathia is guaranteed to opt out. Even if he ends up re-signing with the Yankees, it will be for more money, much like how Alex Rodriguez played it a year ago. The only way Sabathia doesn’t opt out is if his body and pitching arm breaks down, and if it does, that’s good news for the AL East. Either way, Sabathia and the rest of the AL East profit three years down the road.

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