CC Sabathia has five more years to go. At least as a Yankee. For $23 million a year. Unless HE doesn’t want to (given his player’s option to quit after two more years).

Unless he’s the team’s answer to Jamie Moyer or Phil Niekro, he won’t be worth $23 million in his seventh year. More to the point, he hasn’t been worth $23 million in this, his SECOND year, according to FanGraphs. More like $18-$19 million year to date.

Sabathia IS the best pitcher with the New York Yankees. But he is doing so on a curve with aging hurlers like Andy Pettite and AJ Burnett. Meanwhile, a youngster named Phil Hughes is coming up fast, and is running neck and neck with Pettite for the second most productive pitcher.

In fact, Sabathia peaked at 7.5 WAR (wins above replacement) in 2008. Since then, his performance has fallen at about one and half WAR per year, a faster rate of decline than the older Pettite. At this rate, he’ll be a replacement player by the end of year five.

These issues come about because of two fundamental facts of baseball: 1) Players work at controlled wages for six years (seven for Sabathia, counting a one year contract extension) and 2) the average baseball player peaks at age 28. A third fact derives from these two: players negotiate their free agent contracts based on what they did around age 28.

Sabathia was a “high school” player signed by the Cleveland Indians at age 18. He then spent three years in the minors before being called up by the Cleveland Indians in 2001. The club controlled him for six years to 2007, and  purchased his first free agent year 2008 (by “frontloading” salary in his earlier years), the year he turned 28. At that point, he could charge what the market would bear.

In 2008, he was worth $33 million (FanGraphs). Everyone “knew” that was his peak, so it was really a question of guessing his decline trajectory. Suppose it was to something like $30, $27, and $24 million in the first three years, with the fourth more or less breakeven. Then the surpluses over $23 million in the three front years would compensate for the deficits in the back years.

In fact, Sabathia’s decline has been more than DOUBLE this pace, meaning that his performance went “underwater” in year two, rather than year four. The best one can hope for him is that he, like Jason Giambi, will earn more than his salary in three of his first four years, producing a break even result over the whole time. But that would just mean that the team would have to “carry” Sabathia in the last three years. During his last three years, Giambi was basically an average player being paid a star salary.

And one might not expect Sabathia to do as well as Giambi. Dishonorable as it was, Giambi did improve his performance with steroids. And pitchers tend to wear down faster than position players. Third, Sabathia may have a worse weight problem than Giambi.

The Toronto Blue Jays made a similar mistake when they granted Vernon Wells a contract almost as rich as Sabathia’s based on his age 28 year. In a business where peaks and valleys are the norm, signing a player at his peak is a lot like catching a falling knife. We won’t know for another few years if Sabathia is an example of this. But the early indications are that he is.



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