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Pablo Sandoval, CC Sabathia, and sunk costs

Boston has relegated their expensive third baseman to bench duty. Should the Yankees take a similar approach with CC Sabathia?

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday, the Red Sox announced that Travis Shaw would start at third base on Opening Day, in place of Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval struggled mightily in his first year after signing a five year, $95 million contract with Boston. He posted a dismal .245/.292/.366 slash line, good for a 76 OPS+, a massive drop-off from his production with the San Francisco Giants, with whom he owned a 123 OPS+.

Sandoval has a solid .848 OPS this spring (spring training stats caveats apply!), but manager John Farrell indicated Shaw's superior defense played the primary role in the decision. Sandoval began his tenure in Boston with the reputation of a surprisingly serviceable defender at the hot corner, but scouts and defensive metrics alike soured on his capabilities in the field last season. After rating as above average by both UZR and Defensive Runs Saved in 2014, he rated as 16.9 and 11 runs below average in 2015 by those metrics, respectively.

Shaw impressed during a brief major league stint last season, and has continued to do so this spring. His 2015 line of .270/.327/.487 was good for a 115 OPS+, and he totaled 1.5 fWAR in just 65 games. However, his track record is limited. His performance in the big leagues last season belied a less inspiring minor league pedigree. Shaw never made a major top 100 prospect list, and managed only a .256/.319/.395 line in Triple-A.

That Sandoval, entering just year two of a substantial free agent commitment, has already been supplanted by a less heralded player indicates a surprising lack of faith from Boston in their high-profile corner infielder. Still, Sandoval was signed by former GM Ben Cherington, who left Boston as Dave Dombrowski implemented his regime. Dombrowski and Co. have no loyalty towards Sandoval, an expensive player brought in under a previous authority, and view him solely as a sunk cost.

For the less economically inclined, a sunk cost is a cost that has already been paid and that cannot be retrieved. In this case, the Boston front office seemingly has concluded that the cost of Sandoval's contract has already been incurred, and that playing him simply because of his salary would only make matters worse. The Yankees have a similar case on their hands. Whether to hand CC Sabathia the fifth starter job, or to simply demote him to the bullpen, has been a question facing New York this season.

Should the Yankees write Sabathia off as a sunk cost, much like the Red Sox seem to be doing with Sandoval? The Sabathia vs Ivan Nova debate has raged all spring, and Joe Girardi has committed to Sabathia as the fifth starter. Sabathia earns this despite no real performance edge over Nova, as neither has lit the world on fire this spring, and both struggled throughout 2015.

An argument can certainly be made that Nova will be the better starter going forward. As has been noted here before, the pair of pitchers sport very similar ZiPS projections. PECOTA actually sees Nova as the superior option, projecting him for a 4.30 ERA and 1.3 WARP per 200 innings pitched, compared to Sabathia's projection of a 4.53 ERA and 1.0 WARP/200.

It is not a ridiculous notion that Nova is the superior starting candidate. While Sabathia is 35 and clearly on the decline, Nova is still in his prime, entering his age-29 season, which doubles as year two since undergoing Tommy John. It is eminently possible that the two are on opposite trajectories, and given Sabathia's ability to get left-handed hitters out, he could be the better candidate to work as a reliever.

The Yankees don't appear interested in doing so, sticking with the longtime veteran Sabathia in the rotation. Are the Yankees letting his salary dictate his role on the team, instead of viewing his contract as a sunk cost? In some ways, that seems to be the case, given that Sabathia and Nova have similar recent performance and not entirely dissimilar projections for 2016. So what gives?

If the Yankees aren't simply being bitten by a sunk cost here, perhaps they see other reasons to believe Sabathia as a starter and Nova as a reliever/swingman is the optimal roster alignment. Perhaps they would assert that Sabathia has a much more diverse repertoire than Nova, making him a better candidate to turn lineups over multiple times a game. According to Brooks Baseball, Nova essentially threw a fastball or a curveball almost 95% of the time in 2015. He was, in essence, a two-pitch pitcher.

Sabathia generally works with four pitches, throwing a four-seamer, a sinker, a changeup, and a slider all between 18% and 30% of the time in 2015. Sabathia clearly has a deeper arsenal, and Nova has more velocity and a sharper curveball, which could play up in the bullpen. If it is New York's assertion that Sabathia's diverse set of pitches and Nova's stuff makes Sabathia a better choice for the rotation, it is an assertion I cannot adequately dismiss.

However, it still feels as though Sabathia's contract might be clouding the judgment here. Going back to the Sandoval parallel, the current Red Sox management has no ties to Sandoval. Their lack of loyalty to him apparently made it easy to view Sandoval as a sunk cost. Sabathia, conversely, is a long-tenured Yankee, and one who is partly responsible for the team's most recent championship. It would be no surprise if the Yankees felt some loyalty to Sabathia, given his contributions to the team, as well as his recent off-field troubles. This loyalty certainly could play a role in making it difficult for New York to see Sabathia as a sunk cost, and subsequently diminish his role on the team.

It's not easy to place a value on loyalty to longtime players, and it is generally foolhardy to let performance from years long past influence current decisions. There is certainly a case to be made the Yankees should cut their losses and demote Sabathia, viewing him as Boston views Sandoval. I don't believe, however, that such a case is definitive enough to paint the Yankees as foolish for sticking with Sabathia. In the end, only time will tell.