We all know Sabathia's had a great career, and a solid stint here in pinstripes. Just go read Nicolas' piece from earlier this week about how amazing a pitcher Sabathia has been over the last decade and a half. The last two seasons, though, has seen Sabathia's skills slip and his 5.27 ERA, 4.83 FIP, and 18.1% HR/FB rate this year have left many Yankees fans calling for his demotion to the bullpen. Now that Sabathia's out for at least a bit, and perhaps the rest of the season, with a knee injury–the same knee that he had surgery on last year–it's fair to wonder what's next for Sabathia, especially in 2016 and beyond.
Let's not even deal with the possibility of Sabathia coming back this year, we can speculate on that when we get more updates on his injury. Next season is where things get really interesting, anyway. If Sabathia recovers, he'll almost certainly start off 2016 in the rotation. Just look at how long a leash he's been give this year if you want proof. For much of this season, Sabathia was one of the worst pitchers in the American League and the Yankees kept throwing him out there every time his turn in the rotation came around. This decision certainly did not stem from a lack of options. With Ivan Nova out at the beginning of the year, the Yankees let Adam Warren start, and Warren was terrific. Through the end of June, when his time as a starter came to end, Warren had posted a 3.59 ERA, 4.17 FIP, 1.20 WHIP, and 9.1% HR/FB rate. A Cy Young winner? Certainly not. But a competent starter, and a better option than the Sabathia of 2015? Almost assuredly.
Not only did they keep CC in the rotation this season despite seemingly superior alternatives (or at least some with more upside), they also planned to go with a six-man rotation when Michael Pineda returned towards the end of this season rather than move Sabathia to the bullpen. Some of this is no doubt designed to limit the innings of Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, and Pineda, but giving Sabathia a chance to regain some of his previous form has to also be part of this decision. Otherwise, why wouldn't the Yankees just move forward with a rotation of Pineda, Tanaka, Nathan Eovaldi, Severino, and Ivan Nova? With every game more and more important as September looms and the Blue Jays neck-and-neck with the Yankees in the division, the choice to keep Sabathia in the rotation says quite a bit about how negatively any decision-makers feel about moving him to the bullpen.
The Yankees have shown more interest in giving their young guys a chance in 2015, though, suggesting that Sabathia's leash will not be as long in 2016 as it has been this year. With Severino already up and Bryan Mitchell knocking at the door (he's quietly had a very solid year in Triple-A, posting a 3.19 FIP in 75 innings of action), the rotation is overstuffed with young pitchers in need of innings if the Yankees are going to get the most out of them. While they'll certainly give Sabathia a chance in the rotation at the beginning of the year, I wouldn't be surprised to see them put him in the bullpen if he hasn't shown some signs of life by the All-Star Break.
The Yankees have never wavered in their commitment to keeping Sabathia in the rotation, even as his skills deteriorated. While the Yankees would be better next season if they moved Sabathia to the bullpen to be the long man, it almost certainly will not happen immediately. One other option: if he doesn't improve, would the Yankees release him over moving him to the pen? Doubtful. They'd still have to pay him anyway, and Sabathia could be an acceptable long man out of the pen. Maybe his knee could hold up throwing a few innings over the span of a week, and he transforms into a decent reliever. The Yankees should at least try him in the bullpen, just to see if he's at least a little valuable there (because he's not as a starter anymore).
Though Sabathia will almost definitely start next season in the rotation if healthy, even the Yankees must be starting to realize it's probably time to move on. Sooner, rather than later, they'll have to finally come to terms with this.