CC Sabathia's decision could be huge key

Yankees Game 1 starter C. C. Sabathia speaks Yankees Game 1 starter C. C. Sabathia speaks to the media before a workout at Yankee Stadium the day before the start of their American League Division Series against the Detroit Tigers. (Sept. 29, 2011) Photo Credit: Thomas A. Ferrara

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The topic took center stage at the Yankees' organizational meeting Wednesday and will stay there this offseason -- officially on, now that the World Series is over -- until there's a resolution.

CC Sabathia has until 11:59 Monday night to exercise his opt-out clause, and he is likely to do so despite the Yankees' desire to work something out beforehand. That looms over the team's foray into free agency, with the lefthander's decision having an effect on everything else.

Keep Sabathia, and the offseason likely will play out in a somewhat orderly manner. Only minor surgery will be needed on the roster in terms of adding depth to the starting rotation, bullpen and bench.

Lose Sabathia?

A circus of an offseason could ensue. Without Sabathia, the Yankees' rotation, as currently constituted -- Ivan Nova, A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes, rounded out by maybe Hector Noesi and David Phelps or another minor-leaguer -- would be anchorless. The Yankees likely would be forced to overpay in what is a weak free-agent market.

Even if Sabathia returns, the Yankees will closely monitor lefthander C.J. Wilson, the top pitcher in the market, and Japanese star Yu Darvish if he gets posted.

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Hiroki Kuroda -- in whom the Yankees had interest at the July 31 non-waivers trade deadline before the pitcher invoked his no-trade clause with the Dodgers -- Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt are among the second-tier pitchers on the market.

Though the Yankees spent a good deal of time Wednesday coming up with an offer they hope will convince Sabathia not to opt out, it doesn't mean they will lose him if he does. It simply means there likely will be some tough contract talks ahead and, potentially, a bidding war that involves several teams. The Yankees would remain the favorite, but things could get interesting.

There are a limited number of clubs that have the finances to make a run at Sabathia, who has four years and $92 million left on his current deal, but it only takes one.

One talent evaluator mentioned the Cubs, who have money and recently hired former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein to run their baseball operations.

The Nationals are thought to be potential suitors, as are the Angels, a team from Sabathia's home state that made a run at the pitcher three offseasons ago. In fact, general manager Brian Cashman disclosed in spring training, the competition with the Angels for Sabathia was his inspiration for including the opt-out in his seven-year, $161-million contract in the first place. Sabathia had doubts about New York, and the opt-out was included essentially as an escape hatch if the lefthander didn't like it here.

Now Sabathia has set down roots in the area and from Day 1 has professed his affinity for the entire Yankees experience. But that only goes so far.

As is typically the case in these situations, it will come down to money and commitment.

The Yankees' preference is to commit more money -- perhaps upward of $25 million a year, a raise from his $23 million-per-season average -- than years.

"I think seven years is a pretty big commitment," one official said. "He's a big man, he carries a lot of weight . . . The odds are in year 5, 6 or 7, you could have somebody on the shelf making 25 million a year."

Sabathia, 31, is listed as 6-7, 290 pounds, and the official noted his weight -- which appeared to increase the second half of this season, a concern to some in the organization -- and workload. Sabathia has thrown at least 230 innings each of the last five seasons.

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Still, those are only concerns, none of which has the team wanting to go in another direction.

Six years could end up being the compromise for the Yankees and Sabathia's representatives, though again, it's unknown if another team would go to seven or eight years if Sabathia chooses to re-enter the market.

The Yankees picked up club options on Robinson Cano ($14 million) and Nick Swisher ($10.25 million) Saturday , but there's no guarantee that Swisher will be the rightfielder next season, as he still could be traded.

Dodgers rightfielder Andre Ethier, who would have to be acquired through a trade, was among the many names bandied about in the team's pro scouting meetings.

The Yankees also will be in the market for a lefthanded reliever, with free agents Mike Gonzalez of the Rangers and George Sherrill of the Braves among the names discussed.

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