CHICAGO - The Yankees have entered the fingers-crossed phase of CC Sabathia's treatment for a degenerative knee condition after Brian Cashman said Monday it would be at least another six weeks before he could pitch for the team again.
The next step is to put together a contingency plan. Cashman can't afford to wait on a search for rotation help, with the general manager saying he received "no assurances'' from the medical staff that Sabathia will be on the mound for the Yankees by July 1.
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By then, Cashman should have a better gauge of the available pitching market, and the Yankees will get a good look at two potential candidates this week when they face the Cubs' duo of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel at Wrigley Field. Samardzija is 0-4 despite a 1.62 ERA and will be a free agent after 2015. Hammel (4-2, 3.06 ERA) is signed to a one-year, $6-million deal.
With few young chips to trade other than highly regarded catchers John Ryan Murphy and Gary Sanchez, the Yankees could go for Cliff Lee if the Phillies are willing to dump his salary. Lee, 35, is due a guaranteed $37.5 million through 2016, but also has a no-trade clause that includes 21 teams. Last week, Hal Steinbrenner said money would not be an issue if it became urgent to upgrade the rotation.
"We're going to do what we need to do to stay in it,'' Steinbrenner said then.
That was before Steinbrenner knew the severity of Sabathia's condition, which Cashman described as "degenerative changes'' in the pitcher's right knee.
At the moment, it's still too early to predict his return with any degree of certainty. All Cashman is going on now is the rough outline of Sabathia's rehab protocol. Sabathia is expected to remain on crutches for the next day or two after the cortisone/stem-cell injection he received during last week's visit with Dr. James Andrews.
Once Sabathia is cleared to come off the crutches, and can start to put weight on the knee again, he'll begin strengthening exercises in a rehab pool. When Sabathia finally does get back on a mound, it will be like spring training all over again -- building arm strength, pitching live batting practice and eventually appearing in rehab games.
That, of course, is a best-case scenario, which is why six weeks -- the rehab clock started Friday -- might sound overly optimistic. Sabathia's aggressive weight-loss regimen over the past two years figured to help reduce the strain on his knees. But this recent condition is probably due more to the cumulative effect of pitching roughly 2,800 innings in 14 seasons at more than 300 pounds.
Sabathia turns 34 in July and is earning $23 million this year. Beyond that, he is still owed a guaranteed $53 million through 2016, with an additional $25 million tied to a vesting option for 2017. For all the talk of Sabathia "evolving'' -- Joe Girardi's word -- as a pitcher, he had a 5.28 ERA in eight starts this season before the Yankees were forced to put him on the disabled list May 11.
By then, the rotation already was hurting. It had lost Ivan Nova to season-ending Tommy John surgery, and Michael Pineda was out for an indefinite period because of a strained muscle in his back -- just below his repaired right shoulder. Pineda was scheduled to throw a 25-pitch bullpen Sunday at Yankee Stadium, so he seems to be making progress.
Aside from the rookie sensation Masahiro Tanaka, who is 6-0 with a 2.17 ERA, and a scuffling Hiroki Kuroda, the Yankees have assembled a patchwork rotation to replace the missing 60 percent. David Phelps and Vidal Nuño have been moved from the bullpen. Chase Whitley was called up last week from Triple-A Scranton / Wilkes-Barre to take Sabathia's turn.