After missing the postseason for the first time since 1993, the Yankees had to address their pitching shortcomings. The signing of Sabathia was their top priority, because he was the best available starter. The Bombers are far from finished in their search for pitching, but they have taken the necessary first step, not to mention the single largest step they could have taken.
The Yankees' initial offer to Sabathia -- six years for $140 million -- would have been the largest pitching contract in history, beating the $137.5 million that the Mets are currently paying Johan Santana. One month later, Sabathia still hadn't taken the deal, so the Yankees did what they are capable of doing -- they took an enormous offer and made it even more immense.
The offer made to Sabathia, which was agreed upon early Wednesday, is for seven years and $161 million. There will be people who argue that they overpaid. Only time will tell in that regard. For the moment, the Yankees were just making sure they got an ace.
The only other firm bid that Sabathia had received was $100 million for five years, from his previous employers, the Milwaukee Brewers. While the Brewers were apparently willing to marginally increase that offer, this was uncharted territory for them. This is a small-market franchise, and the biggest contract they had previously was roughly half of their offer to Sabathia. The Brewers were encouraged, because Sabathia did not leap immediately at the Yankees' much larger offer and because Sabathia had expressed how much he enjoyed playing for Milwaukee, how comfortable he was in the clubhouse.
There were other competitors, even without other bids on the table. It was widely reported that Sabathia, a native Californian, wanted to play on the West Coast, and he had stated a preference for remaining in the National League, because he enjoyed hitting. The Angels, Giants and Dodgers were all thought to be potential suitors. Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said that Sabathia had made it clear that he wanted to play for the Dodgers, and that seemed to be a credible conclusion.
But all of this apparently did not quite measure up to $161 million and seven years. At some point, the measuring stick for all Major Leaguers is not merely a compilation of statistics, but simply how much they are paid. This is the peer-group measurement. In this case, the Yankees have told the world that Sabathia is the most valuable pitcher in the world. Now it will be up to him to pitch up to his contract.
Can he do it? Could anybody do it? What is $161 million worth of pitching? There will be monumental pressure on Sabathia as he moves to baseball's biggest stage in the new Yankee Stadium. He will be pitching in what is once again baseball's toughest neighborhood, the American League East, with the Boston Red Sox completely established as a rival of the top rank and the Tampa Bay Rays giving every indication that they will be real competition for years to come.
The Yankees will be happy, because, in the biggest offseason pitching competition, they have won. This is, even at an unprecedented cost, a valuable addition. Shortstop Derek Jeter, at the Winter Meetings for a World Baseball Classic news conference on Wednesday, was asked about the acquisition, and said that he couldn't comment on directly on Sabathia's signing because it wasn't yet official.
"All you can say is how great of a pitcher he is," said Jeter, who then went on to praise Sabathia on every level.
The unique pressure of pitching in New York shouldn't be an issue.
"I don't think he'll have any problems," Jeter said.
And the money, the amazingly large amount of money, especially considering what is going on in the rest of the world economy?
"I think it says a lot about the state of the game," Jeter said.
It certainly says something about the state of the Yankees' economy, which is apparently recession-proof. Next spring, the issue will be how Sabathia deals with the pressure and the expectations that will be generated by all that money.
It won't be easy, but the record says that, however his value is measured, Sabathia will produce for the Yankees. He is 28. He is left-handed. He has a record of durability. He is known as a terrific teammate and a leader in the clubhouse.
And he is coming off the best work of his career. After winning the AL Cy Young Award with Cleveland in 2007, Sabathia had a sensational second half with Milwaukee in 2008. He went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in 17 starts, recording seven complete games and three shutouts. And, down the stretch, he repeatedly pitched on short rest. More than any other single player, he was responsible for the Brewers reaching the postseason for the first time in 26 years.
If you look at Sabathia's career, the only place he has not made his mark is the postseason. He has a 7.92 ERA in five career postseason starts. That is a shortcoming in this career, but the point is, with the Yankees, there is an excellent chance that Sabathia will have an opportunity to improve those numbers.
The Yankees have done the one thing they most needed to do in this offseason. They have signed the best available free-agent starter -- a durable, determined competitor. They have paid a precedent-shattering price to obtain his services, but they are, after all, the Yankees.
They acted like the Yankees in their pursuit of Sabathia, finishing off the competition with an offer that could be neither matched nor refused. Now, they can look forward to playing like the Bombers, with Sabathia at the top of a reformulated and dramatically improved rotation.