CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Melky's Impending Departure

Travis NelsonSenior Analyst IDecember 13, 2008

Wow, that was a busy week.

As predicted, the Yankees wound up signing CC Sabathia, for a contract within about 0.6% of the total amount I estimated a couple of weeks ago, albeit for one less year than I thought. The signing came as little surprise to anyone, excepting perhaps Los Angeles GM Ned Colletti, who apparently had an imaginary encounter in which Sabathia professed to want to play for him. When push came to shove, apparently it was about the money, stupid, as Jason Rosenberg will tell you.

Also as expected, it is the largest total and largest average value for any pitcher's contract in history. The unexpected thing is that there is a player option to get out of the contract after just three years, after which the Yankees will have spent "only" $69 million on him, and after which he will be 32 and perhaps starting to (or about to) decline.

That is where the real issue lies, though. While some people have posited that the opt-out clause is actually a good thing for the Yankees, as CC will undoubtedly decide to take it so he can get more money and move closer to his home in southern California. That is only true however, if he is been both healthy and good for the first three years of this contract.

If either of those eventualities does not occur, especially in the third year, the Yankees will almost certainly be "stuck" with Sabathia for the next four seasons. Can you really imagine a pitcher who just went, say, 5-8 with a 4.93 ERA in 87 innings opting out of a four-year, $92 million contract? I don not think so.

In any case, there is every reason for the Yankees and their fans to be excited about what CC means for 2009: A legitimate, number one ace pitcher to anchor the rotation.

And speaking of those...

The Yankees also signed A.J. Burnett this week. Burnett, coming off career highs in innings, wins, and strikeouts technically has nowhere to go but down from here, but there is some reason for hope, despite my previous protestations (begging, really) against this signing. The biggest reason to look on the bright side is that Burnett's BABIP was .318 last year, well above the MLB average of .300, but do not make too much of that. We are only talking about eleven hits here, if he reverts to the average.

Burnett gets $82.5 million over five years, which as I pointed out previously, is four more years than he is ever stayed healthy at a stretch. I hope, and fully expect, that the Yankees would not so cavalierly spend money on such a high risk, and must therefore know something I do not about Burnett's prospects for continued health. Of course, I thought that when they signed Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, too, and those hopes turned out to be misguided, at best.

Six years ago, I worried about Burnett's health and how Jeff Torborg's abuse of his arm might have harmed him in the long run, and apparently I was on to something. Burnett had Tommy John surgery the following April and missed most of the 2003 and 2004 seasons, plus parts of the 2006 season due to TJ-related scar tissue problems. His track record is the very definition of "spotty".

But when he is good, he is really good. Burnett is a workhorse who not only eats innings but misses bats, striking out enough batters to take a substantial part of the load off the Yankees' porous infield defense. He is a number one starter the Yankees will never have to use as such since Sabathia will (hopefully) always serve that purpose.

I find it interesting that Burnett has received a lot of criticism for his apparent unwillingness to pitch when he is anything less than 100% healthy, this from some of the same people who criticize managers for over working pitchers. It seems a bit disingenuous to me to say that Burnett should be willing to pitch even if he does not feel great about it, when they also criticize the culture that discourages pitchers from voicing such concerns, and retroactively villain managers who send pitchers out there with known ailments that eventually lead to things like ligament replacement and rotator cuff surgery.

I do not know whether Burnett could pitch through those maladies, but just chooses not to, but I know I would rather have him at 100% for 28 starts a year than at 75% for every start through July and then not at all for the rest of the season.

The other notable Yankee news this week was the rumor that they are planning on trading Melky Cabrera to Milwaukee for Mike Cameron. This would give the Yankees a stable, if aging and expensive, center-fielder in place of Melky Cabrera, who had a terrible year in 2008 and eventually got sent back to AAA.

Though his terrible batting line was largely due to his .271 BABIP, well below the MLB average, the caveat here is that even if he had hit .300 when he put the ball in play, he would have only amassed ten more hits. That would have brought him up to a .277 batting average instead of .249, and would have given him only the fifth worst OPS among regular MLB center-fielders, instead of the third worst. Oh, goodie.

If the Yankees had taken my advice in the spring and traded Melky before the season really got underway, they might have gotten more in return for him than a 36 year old center-fielder with a .250 career batting average who might make almost $11 million in 2009, if he meets all his incentives. Cameron's not all bad, as he has got some power and takes enough walks to make up for the low batting average.

As it is, though, they are selling low on Melky, but if he is not likely to get any better, they might as well get something for him now. The market for centerfielders who play mediocre defense, do not steal bases, and hit .275 with no power is not likely to be much better when Melky hits his arbitration years.

There are rumors that the Yankees are not done, either with free agents or trades, as they are still trying to reel in Andy Pettitte with a much more modest contract than he got last time around, something more in the $10 million range for a year or two. That would give them a rotation of Sabathia, Burnett, Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain, with Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy relegated to Scranton until such time as somebody gets hurt again. I am not sure they need Pettitte, frankly, as I still think Hughes and/or Kennedy can prove useful, but then they never listen to me.