CC's return only thing sure about next season's rotation

CC Sabathia reacts in the first inning of

CC Sabathia reacts in the first inning of a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Yankee Stadium. (April 17, 2013) (Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

Forget Hiroki Kuroda's steep dive into oblivion since the start of August and the wasting away of Phil Hughes. As frustrating as both pitchers were to watch during the Yankees' final march toward elimination, they're finished in the Bronx, so there's no reason to worry about the future of either one.

CC Sabathia, however, is a different story.

For better or worse, Sabathia is tied to the Yankees through 2016 at a cost of $76 million. And if he stays healthy, a $25-million vesting option for '17 should be a slam dunk. It's worth bringing up again after Sabathia was forced to pull the plug on his final start of this season because of a grade 2 hamstring strain suffered Friday.

If the Yankees had a legit chance at the playoffs instead of a fraction of a percentage point, replacing Sabathia with Hughes for Wednesday's start would be considered a huge deal. But if Sabathia had been anywhere close to himself during the six months leading up to it, maybe the Yankees wouldn't be headed home for October.

"Yeah, and that's what's even more frustrating," Sabathia said before yesterday's game. "I feel if I could have given Hiro some help, we would be in a position we want to be in, so it's tough in that sense."

For much of this season, Kuroda took over as the rotation's de facto ace while Sabathia was supposed to be straightening himself out. But a strange thing happened after the All-Star break. Once Kuroda eventually faltered, Sabathia actually got worse, which left the Yankees to lean on the 41-year-old Andy Pettitte and a revived Ivan Nova. That wasn't going to cut it.

Kuroda's slide continued yesterday as he allowed a leadoff homer, three first-inning runs and five overall in 5 2/3 innings, which dropped him to 1-7 with a 5.98 ERA in his last 10 starts.

Upsetting, sure. But it was hardly a surprise. The Yankees have come to expect that type of outing from Kuroda lately, so why should Tuesday be any different? Of greater concern, in the big picture, is dissecting what happened to Sabathia this season -- and he offered some interesting theories Tuesday.

Sabathia admitted that his "preparation for games probably needs to get a little better" in terms of watching video and breaking down the weaknesses of opposing hitters. During his first dozen years, Sabathia never did it, relying instead on his own weapons rather than strategize on how to navigate a batter's minefield.

Sabathia also said poring over video was something he had resisted because of "stubbornness," giving the impression he had bottomed out in his search for answers. But is that a good thing? It is according to Sabathia, who felt Friday's solid seven-inning performance against the Giants had put him on the road to recovery. He allowed seven hits but only one run, and acknowledged going forward that an effective Sabathia is not necessarily going to resemble the one we've seen in seasons past.

"I don't think I'm going to ever be that same guy again," said Sabathia, who went 4-8 with a 5.54 ERA in the second half. "I'm 33 this year. But pitching against San Francisco the other night, I felt like back to myself -- more so than any other start. It wasn't velocity, because I was 90-93. But pitching inside, being aggressive. Just going out there and being a bully."

With so many questions looming this winter, the Yankees really can't have Sabathia be one of them. But is dominating the out-of-it Giants in late September sufficient to cross him off that list? Joe Girardi expressed confidence that Sabathia could be counted on to regain his spot as the Yankees' ace for 2014, but that's coming from a manager with no guarantee that he'll even be back in the Bronx.

"My thought is CC will be the No. 1," Girardi said, "and then we'll go from there."

It's a start anyway. With Andy Pettitte's retirement, the Yankees are looking at three vacancies in the rotation for next year, and potentially less money to spend if Hal Steinbrenner sticks to his mandate of getting below the $189-million luxury tax threshold. Having already made a significant investment in Sabathia, they can't afford a repeat of 2013.

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