BY BOB KLAPISCH
The Yankees are taking a cautious approach this spring with CC Sabathia, who will wear a knee brace when he pitches.
TAMPA, Fla. — CC Sabathia was wearing a brace on his troubled right knee Friday, raising the eyebrows from those who wonder just how much the Yankees can depend on the big man this season. In fact, not only did Sabathia use the brace during an early-morning bullpen session, he plans to keep it on whenever he takes the mound in 2015.
Code red? Not exactly.
Sabathia – and the Yankees – say there’s nothing amiss here, that it’s just a veteran pitcher being cautious following off-season surgery. Fair enough. But no one’s expectations are particularly robust when it comes to the soon-to-be 35-year old left-hander, who just happened to gain 10 pounds this winter and now rocks the scales at 305.
Let’s repeat: Sabathia has a degenerative knee condition, which is another way of saying his cartilage is wearing down. He’s in the early stages of arthritis, which could conceivably end his career before his contract expires in 2017. Surgery, PRP shots and anti-inflammatory medication are all stopgap measures — they may or may not work over the long haul. No one knows if Sabathia will be one of the lucky ones who responds to treatment.
That’s why the Yankees are being extremely cautious, and have yet to pencil Sabathia into the spring training rotation.
“We have to see how he responds. … I haven’t put together a normal schedule yet,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild. “You have to be reticent, we’re just trying to be smart. If you watch him throw, it doesn’t look like he’s having any trouble, but you want to keep it that way.”
Sabathia made sure to say he feels fine – so far. His bullpen session, the third so far in camp, went smoothly, and he’ll soon graduate to live batting practice in the next few days. The knee brace was his idea, fully endorsed by Joe Girardi who said, “Whatever CC needs to do to feel comfortable [is OK].”
All this matters because the Yankees can’t say for sure if Sabathia can be counted on for even 10 wins and 20 starts, let alone 30. When Girardi says, “We’re taking it slow with him” it means Sabathia might not pitch in the Grapefruit League until mid-March, which would put his spot in the rotation in question the first week of the regular season.
The Bombers are being equally conservative with Masahiro Tanaka, who’ll miss the first week of the exhibition season. Assuming he starts March 9-10, Tanaka would get five starts before opening day, the bare minimum, although Girardi nevertheless says Tanaka “is on schedule” to start against the Blue Jays on April 6 in the Bronx.
These are only minor blips, of course. No one’s hurt, no one’s suffered any significant setbacks. But the Yankees’ rotation represents their weakest link – until proven otherwise, not one of Girardi’s starters can be counted on for 200 healthy innings.
So when Sabathia says he’ll be relying on a brace from now on, it’s just one more asterisk on a scouting report that already says: Possible danger ahead.