With this bizarro free-agent market, who truly knows what $10 million can buy you these days? But the Yankees believe they made a great business decision by bringing back CC Sabathia on a one-year deal, for reasons that extend well beyond his contributions on the mound.
Sabathia couldn’t be happier than he looked Thursday at Steinbrenner Field, preparing for his 10th season in the Bronx. Another 50 yards down the hallway, manager Aaron Boone’s face lit up when he was asked about having Sabathia as a clubhouse lieutenant for his first year.
The two were Indians teammates for two seasons, and Sabathia recalled sitting next to Boone during games, listening to him essentially manage. That planted the seed in Sabathia’s head that this future was possible, and Boone is fortunate to have such a respected ally with that kind of Yankees street cred.
“He’s really good at it,” Sabathia said. “He’s always had that manager mind. I knew he’d be good on Sunday Night Baseball just because of that. He was funny, but it went right along with the game. I’m excited for people just to know him how I know him and get a chance to see his personality.”
After the Core Four years, and the fading glow from the 2009 title Sabathia was recruited to help win, it’s become the big lefty’s duty to implement the Yankee Way, the baton passed from Derek Jeter to the pitcher who not coincidentally inherited Jeter’s locker at Yankee Stadium. Sabathia turned back the clock to go 14-5 with a 3.69 ERA last year, but that’s only part of the reason he’s in pinstripes again.
He realizes it’s bigger than that, especially with his close buddy in the manager’s chair. Consider Sabathia a major factor in the transition team, a $10-million hedge for Brian Cashman’s risky gamble. “I think that’s what I’m here to do,” Sabathia said. “Obviously to perform, to pitch. But try to be that presence and just be there for guys.”
Sabathia is used to the role, and at 37, he embraces it. With a roster that seems to get younger by the day, true veteran leadership has become tougher to cultivate, and he appreciated that when he saw what an impact Todd Frazier made in the second half of last season. Frazier recently signed with the Mets — “He’s going to make a big difference in that clubhouse,’’ Sabathia said — , and Sabathia wound up being head clubhouse counsel for Boone.
“I think he values it,” Boone said. “I think he does put a premium on it. It’s something that I’ve had a number of conversations with him over the winter. One of the messages to him was, I know you’re great at it already, but I want you to feel the freedom to just kind of pour into guys, breathe into guys, as much as you feel like you need to.
“You have that presence about you. You have that clout about you. I think he believes we have a championship-caliber club, and I think he wants to chase that. At least one more time.”
There’s no overstating Sabathia’s importance to Boone’s success. Every manager needs to have his guys in the clubhouse. Without them, he doesn’t have a prayer of pulling a team in his direction. And in extreme cases, mutinies can percolate, and they have the power to sabotage even the most promising seasons.
That’s not to say Boone couldn’t win the Yankees’ clubhouse on his own. But Sabathia’s stature — and loyalty — should help establish his authority in a more expedient fashion.
“Just seeing him these first couple of days, the veteran he is, his impact in our room is enormous,” Boone said. “And I think he touches a lot of guys in there just from his professionalism and willingness to be a mentor.’’
Boone suggested that Sabathia is in his circle of trust, one of those well-grounded players who can assist in defusing “situations before they become situations.” And for those stat-centric folks still wondering how much teams value elder statesmen, seeing Sabathia in pinstripes should be a constant reminder.
“It got me here,” he said, smiling.