CC Sabathia already opted out of Cap'n Crunch. Is his Yankees contract next? That's the question emanating out of Tampa as the Yanks open camp with a slimmed-down CC leading an even thinner rotation. In the winter before the 2009 season, the Yankees gave Sabathia a seven-year, $161 million contract -- the highest for a pitcher -- with a special clause affording him the opportunity to opt out after three seasons. It was, as general manager Brian Cashman told reporters, an important piece of the negotiations to sway CC (whose first choice was to pitch closer to his newly purchased southern California home) to the Bronx.
"[The opt-out clause] is something he earned during those discussions," Cashman said on Monday, "something I threw in there to make him feel comfortable coming here." And by all accounts, appearances and admissions, CC, who built a home in New York and lives there year-round, has grown plenty comfortable in his new digs. The New York spotlight has ruined or altered many a career, but Sabathia has thrived in it, winning 19 games en route to a World Series title in 2009 and winning a career-high 21 games last year. It was after one of those wins last summer that CC was first asked about the opt-out provision in his contract and whether he might exercise it after 2011. At the time, he said he wouldn't "even consider" such a scenario. "I'm here," Sabathia told the New York Post last August. "Hundred percent." It was a decidedly different tone when the topic came up again Sunday. "I have no idea [if I will opt out]," Sabathia told reporters. "Anything's possible." So, what happened between August's assurance and February's fluctuation? Well, the offseason happened. And it's a good time for a man of CC's stature to do some reflecting. Or, more specifically, a good time to listen to advice from his agents and watch how the free-agent market plays out. Sabathia will be 31 next winter. He'll be guaranteed to make $92 million over four years if he remains on his current deal, which would take him to the age of 35. By comparison, Sabathia's good friend and former teammate Cliff Lee just signed a contract with the Phillies at the age of 32. It ensures Lee $107.5 million over the next five years, plus another $27.5 million in 2016 if his club option is exercised, or $12.5 million if the option is bought out. So, Lee has a $120 million guarantee over the next five years. And remember: Lee reportedly turned down six years and $140 million from the Yanks. So, if you're Sabathia (and his agents), and you're watching the Lee situation play out, and you're remembering that Sabathia will be a year younger than Lee was and will have put together a more consistent track record over the course of his career, why wouldn't you opt out and look for even more money and security than you've already attained? I have no doubt in my mind that Sabathia will do just that. Nor do I have any doubt that he'll end up signing an extension with the Yanks, rather than shopping his services elsewhere, because, as was the case in his first free-agent foray, it's doubtful any other team will be able to match the Yanks' resources to sign CC. Unless he suffers a catastrophic injury or major downturn in performance this season, Sabathia will have the rare chance to negotiate not one but two gargantuan contracts while in the prime of his career. Why wouldn't he take it? Already, you can see Sabathia angling to cash in. Do you think it was a coincidence that he dropped 25 pounds this offseason by proving the CC doesn't stand for Cap'n Crunch? Sabathia is treating 2011 like a contract year, because that's exactly what it is. The Yankees' inability to reel in Lee only further illustrated CC's value to them. So, the Yankees will surely extend CC if he opts out. They won't do it this spring or in-season, because it's club policy not to negotiate with players already under contract. But you can bank on it happening at year's end. The problem for the Yanks, of course, is that they're going to have to drastically overpay for a pitcher whose performance, if history is any indication, will decline in his late '30s. But that's of little concern to CC, who has a golden opportunity to ensure he's well-paid well past his prime. He'd be foolish not to explore it. Sabathia's a great pitcher, certainly. But he's an even better businessman.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.