TAMPA, Fla. — Andy Pettitte has no doubt that CC Sabathia can have a strong finish to his career, similar to the one that Pettitte himself had.
“I know what he can do,” Pettitte said late Monday afternoon outside the minor-league complex where he had just addressed many of the club’s prospects. “I’ve stood there, I’ve watched him too many times as far as bullpens and the command that he has.”
Though never the kind of power pitcher Sabathia was, Pettitte had to change his pitching approach after elbow surgery in 2004 caused him to lose some of his velocity. Sabathia, who in his prime consistently threw a mid-90s fastball, has struggled to surpass 90 mph in recent years, perhaps the result of a bothersome right knee that eventually required surgery in 2014. He has posted season ERAs of 4.78, 5.28 and 4.73 the last three seasons.
But with the assistance of a new brace he debuted in September, Sabathia performed well down the stretch, going 2-1 with a 2.17 ERA in his last five starts. That is the kind of pitcher Pettitte believes Sabathia can continue to be.
“I say that because I felt like I was able to do that [adjust to a drop in velocity], and I think he’s better than I was,” Pettitte said.
Pettitte and Sabathia grew close during their four seasons together with the Yankees (2009-10 and 2012-13), and they have kept in touch since the former retired after the 2013 season. Pettitte said he spoke to his friend around the time that Sabathia entered a 30-day alcohol rehabilitation program at season’s end last year.
“You hope and pray he’s got a grasp on it and has a grip on it,” Pettitte said. “I just want to see him be successful. Not only on the baseball field but just as a husband, as a dad and in life. He knows how I feel about him and he knows where he stands with me. I’m a big supporter of C and love him to death.”
Pettitte was at the minor-league complex at the behest of Gary Denbo, the Yankees’ vice president of player development. Denbo brings in a myriad of speakers as part of the Captain’s Camp that he’s put on for the club’s prospects the last two offseasons. Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter are among those who have spoken before.
Pettitte’s primary message?
“The big thing is I would want them to learn how to be great teammates, to care for one another,” he said. “Everybody here has unbelievable talent . . . You can get so self-absorbed in wanting to be great and wanting to get to the next level. Obviously, there’s so much competition, and that’s extremely important. But at the end of the day, only a select few are going to get up there and be successful, and I just want them to be great teammates, great people.”
Judge hopes for call in 2016. Top outfield prospect Aaron Judge was among those who listened to Pettitte’s talk.
“It was great, really good,” said the 6-7, 275-pound Judge. “He had a lot of good information for us.”
The 23-year-old had a .284/.350/.516 slash line in 63 games with Double-A Trenton last season before a promotion to Triple-A Scranton/ Wilkes- Barre, where he had difficulty, compiling a .224/.308/.373 slash line in 61 games. He hopes to get his crack at the big leagues this season, as other highly touted prospects such as Greg Bird and Luis Severino did in 2015.
“A lot of guys had a chance to get up to the big leagues and did well . . . so that’s a great opportunity for the young guys now,” Judge said. “We’re getting an opportunity to go up there and show everybody what we have and what we’ve got, and I’m excited to maybe get a chance to do that this year.”