The Yankees made their first big move of the offseason on Monday, snagging James Paxton in a trade with the Mariners. Mixing Paxton into the rotation figures to be the first of a series of moves general manager Brian Cashman will make this year, as he is already on the record attempting to trade Sonny Gray and is seeking additional pitching. While doing so would secure five starters for the coming season, that shouldn’t be where Cashman stops acquiring pitching.
Currently, the Yankees have veteran CC Sabathia slotted into the fifth spot of their rotation on a one-year deal. Sabathia has said that he plans for this to be the final season of his career, and while bringing him back for one last go is fine, the Yankees can’t assume the rotation ends with him for the entire year.
There are several concerns with relying on Sabathia. At the forefront of the issue is his injury history. The 38-year-old has had stints on the disabled list four times over the past two seasons, and is working with a right knee that is suspect to hold up at best. Heading into last season, the Yankees were fully aware of the likelihood that Sabathia would need to spend time on the DL at some point, so this coming year will be no exception.
So far, the Yankees have been lucky that Sabathia’s injuries have remained relatively minor, and he has been on track to return in two weeks’ time with every recent stint. Should Sabathia go down for any extended period, the issue of depth at starting pitcher becomes a glaring issue again. Jordan Montgomery is still recovering from Tommy John surgery, and even if he pitches this year, it will likely take a while to get back into form. That means that the first men up would come from a short list of Luis Cessa, Domingo German, or Jonathan Loaisiga. We’ve certainly seen enough of Cessa, and to have to rely on German or Loaisiga at the first sign of trouble for the rotation would repeat one of the downfalls of 2018.
There is also the issue of innings. Sabathia has not been adept at working deep into games anymore, as he’s reinvented himself to be an effective pitcher who can go through a lineup twice and hand it over to the bullpen. That in itself isn’t a bad thing, but it becomes complicated when the Yankees don’t really have anyone in the rotation besides Luis Severino who can.
This isn’t to say that bringing Sabathia back was a mistake, or that he can’t perform. Since changing his approach to become a contact-avoiding pitcher rather than a power pitcher, Sabathia has shown a consistent record of effectiveness. His presence in the locker room is also unmistakably valuable, and his drive to win is still there. His downsides are just unfortunately also consistent, and to not be prepared to deal with them would be foolish. If the highest chance of reaching and competing for a World Series involves Sabathia potentially being a spot starter/long reliever, then that should be in both the team and Sabathia’s best interest.