When the Yankees lost to the Detroit Tigers in the Division Series last October, the defeat stung CC Sabathia for several weeks. The season ended abruptly, too abruptly for Sabathia. He was hoping the Yankees could power their way to another World Series title. Instead, the Yankees limped home.
Six months later, the Yankees are trying to replace the disappointment of 2011 with a different ending in 2012. Sabathia will throw the Yankees’ first pitch of a new season against the Rays on Friday, which is the tiniest of steps in what he believes can be a championship season. There will be thousands of pitches thrown before the Yankees can prove if they can make another title a reality.
With Sabathia, the Yankees have an ace they can trust. While every Major League team has a No. 1 starter, not every No. 1 is truly as elite as pitchers like Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander, Tim Lincecum or Clayton Kershaw. When a No. 1 pitcher starts a postseason game, his team has no doubt about the outcome. He might lose, but that confident feeling never fades.
That’s what Sabathia gives the Yankees.
“I take being an ace very seriously,” said Sabathia, who had a subpar final two months in 2011.
Still, in analyzing the 2012 Yankees, there’s little reason to wonder about what Sabathia will do for them. He is reliable and productive, and can be expected to pitch 230 innings, win close to 20 games and have an earned run average around 3.00. The Yankees won’t sweat over Sabathia. To me, there are three players who will be scrutinized more than any Yankees: Alex Rodriguez, Phil Hughes and Michael Pineda.
For Rodriguez, the most important goal is staying healthy. Rodriguez was limited to 99 games in 2011 because of knee and thumb injuries and had the worst statistical season of his career. After an offseason in which Rodriguez had blood-spinning procedures on his shoulder and knee, he is confident that he can return to being a premier hitter again.
“I feel very good about what I did in the spring,” Rodriguez said. “Now it’s time to get started.”
If Rodriguez can stay on the field and be an effective offensive player, the Yankees’ lineup is deeper and more fearsome. When Rodriguez is producing, Kevin Long, the batting coach, said that Rodriguez’s teammates simply have to be themselves, not exceed expectations. That’s how valuable the third baseman can be.
During Hughes’ career, he has been a valuable pitcher for the Yankees, but he has also been an erratic pitcher. After an unsettling 2011 in which Hughes was plagued by a fatigued arm, he worked out diligently in the offseason and dedicated himself to getting into better shape. Hughes understood that he needed to fight to win a job in the spring. He did that by pitching as well as any Yankee starter with a 1.56 ERA. Now Hughes must use his rediscovered fastball and pitch with the same swagger he displayed in the first half of the 2010 season.
“I feel like I’ve done the things I had to do this spring,” Hughes said.
The same cannot be said of Pineda. Even before Pineda went on the 15-day disabled list with shoulder tendinitis, this was certain to be a challenging season. General manager Brian Cashman said Pineda reported to Tampa, Fla., about 20 pounds overweight, which didn’t delight the Yankees.
The Yankees implored Pineda to develop his changeup, a pivotal third pitch to accompany his fastball and slider. Pineda refined his changeup, but his fastball lacked velocity. The pitcher who was supposed to throw 98-mile per hour fastballs was mostly throwing in the low 90’s. The Yankees hope Pineda will rediscover that velocity after his shoulder heals.
With Pineda sidelined, the Yankees have a rotation of Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Hughes, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia. Andy Pettitte will probably be ready for the Major Leagues by May. Pineda’s timetable for returning is uncertain.
Whichever pitchers wind up following Sabathia in the rotation throughout 2012, Sabathia is confident that the Yankees have a talented enough team to win it all. In 2009, Sabathia’s first year in New York, he helped steer the Yankees to a World Series championship. The memories of that season provide motivation for Sabathia.
“After having the parade and going through that whole experience,” Sabathia said, “you want that again.”
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