BY BOB KLAPISCH
Yankees reliever Dellin Betances, right, talks with catcher Austin Romine, earlier this month in spring training
TAMPA, Fla. – True or false: the Yankees are worried about CC Sabathia, who gave up two more home runs Saturday, this time to the Pirates’ Class AAA affiliate. That’s five dingers in his last two games, and just as significant, he lost 2-3 mph from his last start.
Is this enough to make the Yankees panic? Not yet — Joe Girardi repeated the usual platitudes about spring training stats – but don’t let the manager kid you, either. This isn’t how anyone wanted Sabathia to go into the regular season, getting hit hard every time he makes a mistake.
Overall, it was a dreary day for the Bombers, who, in addition to Sabathia’s struggles, have yet to solve Dellin Betances’ velocity issues. Throw in Didi Gregorius’ sprained left wrist and suddenly there are three major concerns with barely a week to go before opening day.
The only consolation is that Gregorius’ X-rays were negative after diving for a ground ball in the second inning, And Sabathia is at least pitching without pain – his knee has held up over the first six weeks of camp, no small victory. But the Yankees still don’t have any hard evidence the left-hander can reverse the decline of the last two summers. That’s decidedly bad news.
After being ambushed for three HRs by the Mets last week, Sabathia allowed four earned runs in five innings Saturday. While the Yankees were losing to the Orioles, 10-2, at Steinbrenner Field, Sabathia was across the street at the minor league complex, getting beat up by a split-squad lineup of Pirates’ prospects. He allowed a home run on his very first pitch.
Sabathia’s performance is not included in his Grapefruit League stats. If it was, his ERA would be sitting at 9.31. The normally easy-going Sabathia snapped at a reporter who asked how much stock he put in those numbers.
“I don’t give a [bleep] what stock is put in it. It is what it is,” Sabathia said, adding, “you can put stock in whatever you want. I’m not really worried about it.”
Sabathia rationalized his setbacks with a reservoir of historical data: he’s had good and bad springs in the past, neither of which has directly impacted his performances in the regular season. Fair point. No one disputes a veteran’s track record.
But Sabathia’s case is somewhat unique in 2015, given that he hasn’t pitched since last May and is coming off knee surgery this winter. Add in his diagnosis (degenerative cartilage condition) and diminished fastball, and you begin to understand that everything Sabathia does matters in March.
The Yankees, after all, are counting on him for 30 starts. GM Brian Cashman pronounced the left-hander “cured” of his knee problem at spring training’s outset, which accounts for the team’s outward lack of worry. As long as Sabathia can deliver the ball and land without discomfort, the rest will take care of itself. So Joe Girardi says.
But time is running out to smooth the rough edges. It’s worth noting that, according to Girardi, Sabathia chose not to pitch against the Orioles in Saturday’s YES-televised broadcast. He instead opted for a lower-profile setting – and easier opponent – at the minor league site.
It’s anyone’s guess why Sabathia ducked the O’s. Girardi hinted he didn’t want to risk over-exposing the left-hander to a division rival; the Yankees face the Orioles in a three-game series April 13-15. But there are hardly any secrets left to guard. Sabathia has faced the O’s 30 times in his career.
But, because he didn’t get to watch Sabathia in real-time, Girardi was in no position to evaluate the drop-off in velocity from his last outing. Sabathia’s fastball sat at 88-91 mph, although the pitcher claimed he was simply working on his change-up.
Over and over, Sabathia said, “I felt great” and that his delivery was “pretty good.” He’ll make one more start before the regular season, which he said is “enough time to get it right.”
The Yankees are hoping Betances will be just productive in the final 10 days. He allowed a run for the fifth time this spring – one in each of his appearances – and has yet to re-create last year’s dominance. Betances maxed out at 94 mph, but only once, and otherwise relied on a curveball that he said, “was better” than in his previous outing.
A scout in attendance, however, said Betances’ curve “is still rolling” more than in 2014. The reliever insists his arm is fine, but he’s struggling with two mechanical flaws: opening up his left shoulder too quickly, thus forcing his right arm to drag behind his body. And, because his leg kick has been too high, not striding directly toward the catcher.
“I’ll be ready for sure, my stuff will get better,” Betances said confidently. The Yankees want to believe him, just as they keep issuing the same disclaimers about Sabathia. It’s only spring training, they say. Better to get smoked in March than in April. Nothing to worry about.
True or false, can any of that be trusted? We’ll know soon enough.