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Good sign for Yankees - Sabathia

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / December 11, 2008
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LAS VEGAS - Have the New York Yankees gone back to being . . . you know, the Evil Empire New York Yankees?

They are the richest, most powerful entity in sports. They have built a $1.3 billion stadium with all the bells and whistles. Good economy, bad economy. No matter. CC Sabathia, Derek Lowe, A.J. Burnett, Manny Ramírez, and/or Mark Teixeira.

The Yankees, who agreed to terms with Sabathia on a seven-year, $161 million deal yesterday, can and may sign more than a couple of the other prominent free agents.

They have always been on an island by themselves in terms of what they can afford. They have tried to scale back that approach, trying to go the farm system route, but at the end of the day they revert to what they do best - they buy the best available players, partly because some of their homegrown players (Melky Cabrera, Phil Hughes, and Ian Kennedy, to name a few) haven't made the splash they'd hoped.

So it came as no surprise to Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein that the Yankees opened the vault, and they may open it once or twice more for Lowe and/or Burnett and perhaps Ramírez when all is said and done.

"Nothing surprises me anymore," said Epstein. "[Sabathia is] clearly the top pitcher on the market. He pitched great and he deserves to be rewarded. What he did down the stretch with Milwaukee was really admirable and great for baseball. He pitched his team to the playoffs. He took the ball on three days' rest and that was fun to watch. I have a lot of respect for what he did."

In the end the Yankees gave Sabathia $61 million more - and two more years - than the Brewers offered. It was the only other offer on the table. The Giants had decided Sabathia was too rich for them despite his hometown interest. The Red Sox met with him Monday and came away impressed, but an offer was never made, according to major league sources. Epstein said that even before the winter meetings here, he felt Sabathia would be a Yankee.

"Yeah, any time a team offers, which at the time was more than $40 million more and could go up to more than $60 million more than anyone else, there's a pretty good chance he's going to sign," said Epstein. "It was a strong signing by the Yankees."

Has it always worked out? No. Take the years 2001-08, for example, when the Yankees were shut out of the world championship. And last season marked the first time in 14 years they didn't make the playoffs. When that happens, you know the Yankees are going to spend money. Sabathia's deal is downright crazy for a guy whose weight was listed by the Brewers as 311 pounds.

Even with the richest contract ever for a pitcher, he has an opt-out after three years just in case he doesn't like New York, as well as a full no-trade clause.

The Yankees will now have a formidable rotation with Sabathia at the head and Chien-Ming Wang in the No. 2 spot. Don't underestimate how tough it was for the Yankees to lose Wang for most of last season. Now you add Sabathia and a full season of Wang. Watch out. Lowe is on the radar, as is Burnett - according to reports, the Yankees have offered him a fifth year guaranteed, same as the Braves. They are still not out of the hunt to retain Andy Pettitte for another season and they have the option of either keeping Joba Chamberlain in the rotation or returning him to the setup role if they acquire Lowe, Burnett, or even free agent Ben Sheets to round out the rotation. So there is no end to what they may spend.

The Yankees will be formidable in the American League East again. There's no getting around it. While teams with payrolls a fraction of theirs made the playoffs and even the World Series (Tampa Bay), the Yankees will do it their way - big and grand. They hope they have put the right pieces in place this time because the last big-money splurge that netted Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Alex Rodriguez didn't yield a World Series, and the Yankees have to win the World Series to make the spending worth it.

"I think the Sabathia signing shows that maybe players do want to play in New York again," said Damon. "I think it's a great signing for us. It gives us the horse in the rotation that we need."

Lowe, according to an SI.com report, had a four-year offer worth more than $60 million from the Yankees, who are now being very aggressive in making sure they get one or even two more coveted pitchers. While GM Brian Cashman is focusing on pitching, do we really think he would go into the season without protection for Rodriguez in the lineup? Unless the Yankees are trying to reinvent their 1996 season when they stressed pitching and defense and manufacturing runs, don't believe it.

There are those in the Yankee organization who want Ramírez. Don't forget A-Rod is his close friend and could push for him.

Agent Scott Boras, who represents Lowe and Ramírez, said there has been a big market of at least nine teams for a legitimate No. 3 or No. 4 hitter, which Ramírez is. Don't forget, the Yankees have also met with Teixeira, a player the Red Sox covet, and Boras indicated all the teams interested in Teixeira have made offers and visited with the switch-hitting, two-time Gold Glove first baseman.

The Yankees are now expecting that Jorge Posada, who missed much of last season with shoulder surgery, will reclaim the No. 1 catching job and provide them with his usual clutch bat. Hideki Matsui is coming back from knee operations and will DH. The Yankees are in need of a center fielder, or they could go with Cabrera or Brett Gardner. But they also could make a deal for a center fielder such as the Dodgers' Juan Pierre or Colorado's Willy Taveras.

But now with Sabathia at the head of the rotation, even Boras acknowledges it makes New York a pretty attractive destination for a player who wants to win.

The Sabathia signing makes the Yankees relevant again, and now we'll see how much the Evil Empire adds before all is said and done.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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