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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Can Yankees get CC Sabathia up to speed?

Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia throws in the bullpen

Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia throws in the bullpen at Steinbrenner Field on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

TAMPA, Fla. - Joe Girardi chose to give CC Sabathia the starting nod as the longstanding No. 1 of the Yankees' rotation. But in stacking up nearly $250 million worth of pitchers for Saturday's game against the Phillies, the manager also made Sabathia look like the undercard, with the main event to follow in the fifth inning.

That, of course, was Masahiro Tanaka, who entered to the loudest applause from the sellout crowd of 10,934 at Steinbrenner Field. Tanaka performed as advertised, using seven different pitches -- by his count -- with a fastball that ranged from 89 to 94 mph.

In Tanaka's case, the velocity didn't feel all that critical. We had heard so much about his split-fingered fastball that everyone was on the lookout for that one pitch, waiting for it to appear like some rare bird.

And when Tanaka delivered and Ben Revere swung through an 87-mph splitter that dived away from his bat, the strikeout became the highlight of his two scoreless innings.

The Yankees were thrilled by his poise as well as his performance. Tanaka didn't get rattled when the first hitter he faced, Darin Ruf, slapped an 0-and-2 fastball for a single. He appeared to be in command the entire time.

"I'm encouraged by what I saw," Girardi said.

It's important to note that Tanaka is only going to improve. He'll grow more comfortable with each start down here. For Japan's top pitching star to say he was "relieved" to get his first Grapefruit League outing under his belt spoke to just how big of a deal it was personally for him. And for the Yankees, who spent $175 million to get him to the States.

Before we call this day an unqualified success, however, there is the not-so-small matter of the slimmed-down Sabathia, whose velocity again is a concern after he couldn't break 88 in Saturday's two-inning stint.

Try as he may, Sabathia isn't going to convince anyone that he can be Cy Young-caliber at slower speeds. At least not yet. After his outing, he faced the same barrage of questions he did last year at this time, and he no longer has the built-in excuse of offseason elbow surgery. Or the patience to go down this road again.

Sabathia got a little chippy with his responses when the subject turned from Tanaka to his own diminished velocity, which is out of character for him. He's as accountable as they come, and he doesn't dodge any topic. But it's becoming clear that Sabathia is tired of this particular narrative.

"My fastball is what it is," he said. "As long as I'm healthy, I'm good."

That's the company line, too, and Girardi didn't even bother to suggest -- as he did in spring training a year ago -- that Sabathia's radar-gun readings will climb back to the mid-90s levels of the past. Maybe the manager is bored with the debate. But it's more likely that he realizes it's an indefensible position.

"That was something people wanted to make a ton about last year and I'm not going to make much of it," Girardi said. "To me, if he's locating, I don't care what his velocity is. He's going to get people out."

The Yankees don't want to consider the alternative right now. Sabathia has four years and a guaranteed $76 million left on his contract. It's premature to believe we're witnessing a changing of the guard in the Yankees' rotation. But with the arrival of Tanaka, it's not too soon to wonder about the possibility. Or how quickly that might happen.

Think about it. In light of Sabathia's struggles, Hiroki Kuroda has been the Yankees' de facto No. 1 the past two seasons, and he breezed through his two innings Saturday as the bridge between the past and future. He's also 39 and signed to a one-year deal, so it's not as though the Yankees are laying a new foundation with Kuroda.

They went all-in on Tanaka because they desperately had to. And in watching the front end of the rotation zip through the Phillies' B-listers, the Yankees got a glimpse of what may lie ahead: a deteriorating Sabathia, a capable Kuroda and a rising star in Tanaka.

From what we saw, don't be surprised if there's a new No. 1 in the Bronx before very long.

The Yankees would prefer it didn't happen overnight.

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