Signing free agents is nothing new for the Yankees, who assess holes and routinely fill them. Sometimes, they even get lucky with free agents who endure as impact players longer than foreseen.Sabathia is more, and not because he brings the notoriety of the richest deal given a pitcher, reportedly for seven years and $161 million. He isn't just a new ace, but a new face of baseball's most storied franchise. And this new face is perpetually smiling, an attitude which reflects the fun he has playing and just being around this game. That also makes Sabathia a gust of fresh air who could change the clubhouse culture of a team perceived to have played "too tight" in the years since its last World Series championship in 2000. At his two previous stops, Cleveland and briefly Milwaukee, Sabathia was beloved as a fantastic, fun-loving teammate. That whole "clubhouse presence" can be overrated in a sport in which the important stuff happens between the lines, said Yankees captain Derek Jeter. "Every time we get someone new, I'm asked about how he will fit into the clubhouse," Jeter said. "I think too much is made of that." It is impossible to overrate the ace and face billings, however. Halfway through Sabathia's seven-year contract, Jeter will be a 38-year-old shortstop legend possibly taking his 3,000 hits into retirement and into the Hall of Fame waiting room. And Sabathia will be in his early 30s, in his prime years, perhaps still carrying the Yankees on his broad size-50 back. In this dissolve from current to future face, the incumbent welcomed the newcomer -- with a qualifier. "When you talk about wanting to improve the team, he's certainly the type of guy who can help ... if we do finish signing him," Jeter said mid-Wednesday. "He's everything you could want."
Jeter, who like many of his teammates has hit Sabathia hard and has a .500 lifetime average against him, nonetheless testified that he is "a big guy, a power pitcher with a tough slider."The Yankees have not had such an under-30 pitching centerpiece since those double bolts of Louisiana Lightning, first the original, Ron Guidry, then Andy Pettitte. Chien-Ming Wang, only four months older than Sabathia, did lead the Yankees in victories in 2006-07. Because of his pitching style and temperament, a reputation as a stopper eludes Wang. Opposing hitters do not turn up ill the day he is scheduled to pitch. Sabathia has that type of intimidation effect, especially on left-handed batters: They've hit .204 against him the past two seasons, totaling eight home runs in 468 plate appearances. Is this a good time to mention that the three top American League East homer hitters not on the Yankees last season either hit lefty or switched, and that didn't even include slumping Yankees nemesis David Ortiz? For Sabathia to keep that appointment to emerge as the Bombers' new face, two things will have to happen: One, he will have to love New York enough to not wish to use the post-2011 opt-out cause believed to have been granted to him by the Yankees. Jeter, who gave Sabathia a brief "recruiting" speech long ago, doesn't think that will happen because the city speaks for itself.
"I was asked to talk to him, so we talked," Jeter said. "My philosophy is, you don't have to sell New York."Two, he will have to pitch into unchartered territory for $100 million pitchers. Granted, there have been few, but the track record is cautionary: Kevin Brown went 3-4 in 2002 in the fourth season of his seven-year, $105 million deal. Mike Hampton went 13-9 in 2004 in the fourth year of his eight-year, $121 million deal, and he has won a total of eight games since. The jury has a long way to deliberate on the two other pitchers Barry Zito, who is 22-30 just two seasons into his seven-year, $126 million deal in San Francisco, and Johan Santana, who christened his six-year, $137.5 million deal with the Mets last season by leading the National League in ERA and winning 16 games. Speaking of taking over New York and of Santana ... Sabathia specializes in getting the best of him. During their last mutual season in the AL, Sabathia beat him in all three of their duels. Now he has beaten him in the bank. All the more reason for Sabathia to look forward to next summer's Interleague matchups at Citi Field. He will get to hit, and he will get to duel Santana -- maybe get to do both in the same game. Face it, the Yankees have just come up with another great reason to cross off the days to April.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.