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Almost alone among pitchers, CC Sabathia brings the durable goods

Unlike most aces with big contracts, Yankees' CC Sabathia has been at least as effective and healthy, as before his deal. Will Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw follow suit?

June 15, 2013|By Bill Shaikin
  • Of the six MLB pitchers to complete at least four years of a contract worth at least $90 million, the New York Yankees' CC Sabathia is the only one who has remained successful and durable.
Of the six MLB pitchers to complete at least four years of a contract worth… (Ben Margot / Associated…)

The Dodgers have the best pitcher in baseball, and a treasure chest overstuffed with shiny coins from Time Warner Cable.

Clayton Kershaw is the man. The Dodgers plan to pay the man.

The cost almost certainly would exceed $200 million, with Kershaw becoming the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history. The return on investment would be entirely unpredictable.

The best-case scenario pitches in Anaheim on Sunday, for the New York Yankees. Of the six pitchers to complete at least four years of a contract worth at least $90 million, CC Sabathia is the only one who has remained successful and durable.

"It's luck," Sabathia said.

It's much more, of course. But you never know. Of the four pitchers to sign for at least $140 million in the last year, Zack Greinke has been injured, Felix Hernandez had an injury scare, Justin Verlander had a scary May, and Cole Hamels leads the National League in losses.

The case studies are too few to draw a definitive conclusion. The logical conclusion is that older pitchers get rewarded for their younger, sturdier selves.

Sabathia, Kevin Brown, Mike Hampton, Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano and Barry Zito all signed for at least $90 million, after four consecutive seasons with at least 863 innings pitched.

Sabathia is the only one among the six to throw more innings in the first four seasons of his new contract than he did in the four seasons before signing it. The other five threw fewer innings — all at least 100 fewer, three at least 200 fewer.

Zito lost his fastball. Hampton lost his sinker. The other three got hurt.

"I just try to take good care of myself," Sabathia said. "That's a big reason why I lost weight this off-season — to stay healthy and make all my starts. Last year, I went on the disabled list twice. That really bugged me."

The Yankees list the 32-year-old Sabathia at 6 feet 7 and 290 pounds. That Sabathia has emerged as the most durable of the big-money pitchers might come as a surprise to baseball officials who scoffed at the notion that a big-body guy could prosper into his 30s.

"Sometimes I hear I'm too big," Sabathia said. "This year, I've heard I've lost too much weight. If I pitch good, I'm the right size. If I pitch bad, I'm too fat.

"I know what I need to do to keep myself healthy. I've got a good routine. I feel really good."

By harnessing and repeating a mechanically sound delivery, Sabathia can parlay his large size into a strength advantage, Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said.

Billy Eppler, the Yankees' assistant general manager, said the team believed Sabathia could extend his durability with the athleticism that got him scholarship offers to play college football, as a tight end.

For an ace pitcher, a contract increasingly is a function of supply and demand. In the winter of 2008-09, when the Yankees made Sabathia baseball's highest-paid pitcher, the next three highest-paid free agents were A.J. Burnett, Derek Lowe and Ryan Dempster.

Kershaw is eligible for free agency after next season. The top starters that might be available in free agency after this season include Ervin Santana, Josh Johnson and Matt Garza.

"There is not that much talent that hits the free-agent market," Eppler said, speaking generally. "There are not really that many guys you could call No. 1 starters.

"You're going to have to get to the point of being uncomfortable with the term."

That's the point the Dodgers will reach with Kershaw, if they're not there already. Mark Walter, the team's controlling owner, had a simple explanation last year for his reluctance to sign pitchers to long-term deals: "Pitchers break."

Walter got over it. The Dodgers signed Greinke for six years and $147 million, at the time the largest contract for any pitcher besides Sabathia.

The Dodgers would need to guarantee more years to Kershaw, in the hope most of them would be productive.

"No one is going to be healthy for seven years," said agent Scott Boras, who does not represent Kershaw or Sabathia. "That is not a human dynamic."

His argument for spending the money is the reason teams play — to win. In 2009, Sabathia's first season in New York, the Yankees won the World Series.

"If you win one world championship in seven years, that's a great investment," Boras said.

The Dodgers have won none in 25 years. Pay the man.

Kershaw is every bit as durable and athletic as Sabathia. The Dodgers even use him as a pinch-runner.

There is no reason to believe Kershaw would not deliver as reliably under a new contract, except logic and historical trends. Ask Sabathia if he knows why he has endured when his big-bucks pitching peers have not, and he gives an honest answer.

"I really don't," he said. "I can't explain why I haven't had an injury."

And then he knocked on a locker stall, made of wood.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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