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Why CC Sabathia is the most important pitcher on the Yankees’ staff

The Yankees desperately need Sabathia to repeat his 2016 success.

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For the better part of the offseason, Yankees fans engaged in a long debate over the starting rotation. The back-end starters received the most scrutiny, but there was no shortage of Michael Pineda think pieces. I would know. I wrote some of them.

CC Sabathia, on the other hand, has largely gone unnoticed. There’s been little fanfare or intrigue surrounding the veteran left-hander. I find this rather surprising, considering Sabathia is arguably the most important starter on the staff. While that might sound hyperbolic, a closer examination reveals that the Yankees playoff hopes rest on the southpaw.

Last season proved to be a renaissance year for Sabathia. Armed with a new cutter and a stabilizing knee brace, he posted a 3.91 ERA (4.28 FIP) across 179.2 innings. That worked out to a 3.0 rWAR mark, his best showing since 2012. Sabathia’s pitching helped the Yankees hang on in the wild card race for as long as they did.

The goal for the upcoming season is to continue the youth transition while remaining competitive. Hal Steinbrenner indicated as much early last month. “I always think I have a playoff team,” he explained at the quarterly Owners’ Meeting. Steinbrenner also revealed these intentions when he authorized the free agent signings of Aroldis Chapman and Matt Holliday.

In order to make those goals a reality, the Yankees need Sabathia to repeat his 2016 performance. The 2013 - 2015 version of Sabathia will not do. In those seasons he accumulated a total 0.7 rWAR. When on the mound, he was among the most ineffective pitchers in baseball. It was ugly.

The real question now is if 2016 was a turning point or an anomaly. Did he learn how to effectively pitch with diminished velocity? Is he healthy enough to log a full season’s worth of innings? These are all questions that will determine the success or failure of the 2017 Yankees. Sabathia’s pitching will play an integral role in shaping the outcome of the season.

Those questions make Sabathia so interesting. The Yankees know what they have with Masahiro Tanaka. He’s the staff ace, barring injury. At this point, Pineda has cemented his status as the rotation enigma. The organization understands that he’s entirely unpredictable. The fourth and fifth starters aren’t likely to have to have a major impact. That leaves Sabathia as the key pitcher.

The Yankees recognize how crucial Sabathia is to their success. That’s why the organization has him on an adjusted schedule compared to the other pitchers. According to George King of the New York Post, “the Yankees are taking it slowly with the veteran lefty because he had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee following last season.” The club has enough pitching depth to replace Sabathia should he suffer an injury, but it’s unlikely the internal candidates can match his 2016 performance.

The Yankees could squeak by with an ineffective Sabathia, but a repeat of his success from last season would be a major boost. He could stabilize the rotation or sink it. That’s what makes Sabathia so important. If he ages like Andy Pettitte, the 2017 Yankees will be in good shape.

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference.