In 2009, CC Sabathia was on the hill to help the Yankees sweep the Twins for their first postseason series win in five years. It seemed like an eternity at the time, especially for a franchise that had seen its string of 13 straight playoff appearances snapped the year before. The team would win four of his five playoff starts that year, en route to their 27th World Series title. Fans rejoiced in knowing exactly why the organization made CC such a priority in the offseason. When it came to pitching big games, no one was bigger than CC.
Now, after calling Yankee Stadium home for nine years, the 37-year-old is a free agent. While no decisions have been made, the front office is clearly exploring other options. Sabathia's nine-year run was memorable. It began with a title, and continued with a string of near-misses, including a trio of LCS exits. It also included three playoff absences.
CC joined a team that was still built around the Core Four. They were on their way out. When Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte retired following the 2013 season, Sabathia became the leader of the pitching staff. By the time Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada left, he had become a leader in the clubhouse too. After Alex Rodriguez was released in 2016, it fell to CC to lead the team.
Leadership comes as naturally to Sabathia as pitching. For example, this year he revived a ritual that fostered a sense of oneness among members of the rotation. While the day's starter warmed in the bullpen, the others would watch in support. The quintet would then walk in from the pen and into the dugout together, as one.
Over the course of his stellar Yankees career, Sabathia made 255 starts, winning 120. He made 17 postseason starts, with the Yankees winning 12 of those games. He was 2-0 in the 2009 LCS against the Angels, taking home MVP honors in the process.
This past season, Sabathia was tasked with going up against eventual Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber in the decisive ALDS Game Five in Cleveland. CC came through once again, hurling five innings of two-run ball to help the Yankees upset the heavily-favored Indians and advance to the LCS. Sabathia was also tabbed to start the ultimate game of that series, where he took the tough-luck loss.
The decision to start Sabathia in the biggest games of the season may have been the manager's to make. But honestly, is there anyone out there who wouldn't have made the same choice? The veteran became the Yankees’ stopper this year. Sabathia was 10-1 in starts following a Yankees loss. The lone defeat came in Game Seven of the ALCS in Houston.
Among starters who threw at least 140 innings, Sabathia’s 3.69 ERA was the 15th lowest in the league. His 124 ERA+ was 13th best. He outperformed many top-of-the-rotation guys over the course of the season, while helping the Yankees lock up the top Wild Card berth.
Four out of five rotation spots for next year are spoken for. Third-place Cy Young finisher Luis Severino and sixth-place Rookie of the Year vote-getter Jordan Montgomery form a youthful righty-lefty duo. Mid-season trade acquisition Sonny Gray returns, as does Masahiro Tanaka, who decided not to exercise the opt-out clause in his contract.
The Yankees are known to have prioritized their pursuit of Japanese two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani. If signed, he would take the final spot in the rotation. If Ohtani lands elsewhere, the team could set their sights on a different free agent target, such as Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta. Another possibility is a spring training competition between in-house options. Luis Cessa and Domingo German are already on the 40-man roster, while Chance Adams remains a favorite prospect among fans.
It's unclear what the organization's Plan B is after Ohtani. Sabathia might be it, but we have no way of knowing. He has already publicly expressed an interest in remaining with the club that he has called home for nearly a decade. So the ball is clearly in the hands of the front office.
There are a lot of reasons to bring CC back. He is a gamer, a well-respected team leader, and a veteran clubhouse presence that rookie manager Aaron Boone could really lean on. Still, there are other valid reasons for the club to go in a different direction. One thing is certain: If we have indeed witnessed the beloved lefty's final game in pinstripes, it will be sad to see him go.