Throughout spring training, the Yankees said they'd be happy if CC Sabathia is healthy enough to make 32 starts this season.
Even Thursday night, on a frigid night that reminded one not at all of spring, Joe Girardi said, "We've just got to keep him in the rotation. I think that's the important thing."
In a 6-3 loss to the Blue Jays, Sabathia was charged with five runs (four earned) in 52/3 innings. He gave up eight hits, walked none and struck out eight in his first start since last May 10.
Sabathia wasn't hit hard and had a dominant stretch in the middle. But the results are what they are, and the Yankees are 1-2.
It's kind of an unspoken problem for the Yankees right now: Sabathia might be healthy enough to make 32 starts, but the issue then will become his ability to get outs. And the results Thursday night were mixed at best.
"I think he threw the ball a lot better than it looks like," Girardi said.
If you put aside who he is and what he has done and judge him solely on his stuff, at the moment he's a below-average 34-year-old pitcher with a bloated contract and a disappearing fastball. Sabathia touched 90 miles per hour twice in 95 pitches.
"It's something to build on," he said. "No walks and not a lot of solid contact."
Physically, he said, "I feel great."
Toronto scored four runs in a second inning that featured five singles, including an infield hit on which Sabathia misplayed a potential double-play ball that could have put the kibosh on the whole rally. Only two of the balls were stung.
"If he's going to be hit that hard every time he starts, I'll take it," Girardi said. "Because he's not going to give up that many runs."
After the second, Sabathia was stingy. Starting with the last out of the second inning, he retired eight consecutive batters, six of them by strikeout, including the side in the fourth.
The Jays scored in the sixth on two singles and a throwing error by Carlos Beltran.
Even if he's not their best starter anymore, Sabathia is the Yankees' spiritual ace. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which Girardi pulls him from the rotation strictly for performance.
Then there's the contract. Sabathia is making $23 million this year and has two more seasons after that at $50 million, including an option for 2017 that vests if he doesn't suffer a shoulder injury in 2016.
The Yankees point to his strikeout numbers -- even last year, he fanned 48 in 46 innings -- as evidence that the stuff is still there despite the mileage on the arm. But the name of the game is preventing runs, and Sabathia is declining fast in that regard.
In 2014, he made eight starts before getting shut down in May for knee surgery. He was eminently hittable, pitching to a 5.28 ERA. The MLB average ERA was 3.74.
It's easy, and fair, to blame the injury. But in his last full season, Sabathia hit that magic number of 32 starts. In 2013, his ERA was 4.78. The MLB average was 3.86.
And then there's the fastball velocity -- Sabathia's least favorite topic.
He once was a power pitcher. He isn't anymore. It will never return to where he was in his first Yankees season of 2009 (94.1-mph average).
"It's really great to have him back," Girardi said.
Problem is, Sabathia might never really be back the way the Yankees need him to be. Even if he does make those 32 starts.