(AP)

BY PETE CATAPANO

The Yankees shunned behemoth contracts in recent years, choosing instead to develop their young players.

But what a difference a year without the playoffs makes.

Going back to their old playbook, they Yankees pulled out $161 million from their wallet yesterday for CC Sabathia, signing the most coveted starting pitcher on the market to a seven-year deal that makes him the highest paid player in the position.

“They’ve been in dire need for a front-line starter for quite some time now and Sabathia is the best around right now,” said A.J. Daulerio of sports site, deadspin.com. “If they start throwing obscene amounts of money at Derek Lowe and A.J. Burnett, well, that would really prove they haven’t learned from their mistakes.”

The contract is big (and so is Sabathia, who’s 290-plus frame has some wary), though some say the Yankees had no choice but to cough up the cash to right their ship. This year, they missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

“They’re moving into a new stadium in which they’re charging a lot of money for tickets and luxury suites,” said Dave Pinto a former ESPN analyst and owner/author of baseballmusings.com. “They want to win.”

Despite having by far the biggest payroll in the league year after year, the team hasn’t won a championship since 2000.

The 29-year-old lefty’s contract will trail Alex Rodriguez’s $275 million, 10-year deal with the Yankees as well as Derek Jeter’s $189 million, 10-year contract with the Bronx Bombers.

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There’s also some concern about Sabathia’s physical condition.

“I would not pay $160 million for seven years for a 300-pound pitcher,” said Jim Jacobs of Yankeesbaseballblog.com.Some Yankee fans would further argue that $161 million is a lot to spend for any one player, given that the economy is sliding and that the team is asking the city for $370 million more in public bonds to finance a new stadium.

“The sport has evolved into a business,” said Brooke Smith, a 22-year-old architect’s assistant from Williamsburg. “It's not just the good old American game that it used to be.”

At least one fan believed that winning is priceless.

“Other teams develop winners, the Yankees buy winners,” said Chris Basilas, 47, of Bayside. “We want winning teams.”

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Pinto said that at the end of the day, the Yankees will still have to answer to their fans.

“When the team starts playing bad, the tickets will go down,” Pinto said.

The Yankees may not be done with their shopping spree yet. They still might re-sign Andy Pettitte, and have had talks this week with Ben Sheets and agents for Burnett. Adding those pitchers will put them well over the $200 million mark again.

Aline E. Reynolds and the AP contributed to this story.