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Sabathia's surgery a cautionary tale

The history of baseball in the free-agent era is littered with tales of pitchers who were signed to long-term contracts and then never delivered on them.

The road begins at Wayne Garland Way, zigzags through Don Gullett Drive, meanders along the Mike Hampton Freeway to the Barry Zito Concourse, and passes through Johan Santana Avenue and A.J. Burnett Boulevard before coming to a crashing halt at the dead end known as the Oliver Perez Parkway.

Now, the New York Yankees are about to hop onto Cliff Lee Lane, another long path strewn with boulders and potholes and traffic jams and hidden horrors that might reveal themselves over time or, if they get real lucky, might remain hidden until after the deal has run its course.

But history, both ancient and current, tells us the odds are against it.

The news coming out of Yankeeland on Wednesday morning -- that CC Sabathia, the ace left-hander they rode like a plow horse all season, will undergo knee surgery Friday -- is the latest reminder that there is no worse long-term investment for a baseball team than a starting pitcher.

Sabathia's surgery will be arthroscopic, and his injury -- a "small tear of the meniscus of the right knee" -- is believed to be minor.

But in reality, the only minor surgery is surgery performed on someone else, and any knee injury to an athlete weighing 325 pounds, however "small" on a news release, is bound to be a bit larger in real life.

Chances are Sabathia will rebound from this injury in time to have a smooth rehab, a normal spring training and an on-time start to the 2011 season.

But chances are he won't, too, because setbacks have been known to happen during rehab assignments -- see: Pettitte, Andy -- and because Sabathia, although a supremely gifted athlete, is no one's idea of a perfect physical specimen.

Plus, over the past four years, his supersized body has been asked to put out supersized effort. Since 2007, no pitcher in baseball has thrown as many innings, nearly 1,000, nor thrown as many pitches, a whopping 15,736, as Sabathia. (His nearest competitors in innings pitched, Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez, threw 1,600 and 2,200 fewer pitches, respectively, over the same period.)

Even granting Sabathia Superman-type status, as the Yankees tend to, he also is a human being, and at some point, something has to give. Odds are it will before his seven-year, $161 million contract with the Yankees runs out in 2015.

Sabathia has so far been worth every penny the Yankees have paid him. But at some point, there could be diminishing returns on his deal.

It has happened to the New York Mets with Santana, who signed a six-year, $137.5 million deal with them. Although he has pitched well, he has undergone elbow and shoulder surgery after each of the past two seasons, as well as displaying decreased velocity. It is possible the Mets already have seen the best pitching they will ever get out of Santana.

Same goes for the San Francisco Giants, who gave Zito seven years and $126 million before the 2007 season, and have never gotten a winning season out of him. In four seasons Zito's record is 40-57, his ERA 4.45. He was left off this postseason roster and will not take part in the World Series that begins Wednesday night against the Texas Rangers.

Garland, of course, is the classic example -- on the strength of a 20-7 1976 season for the Baltimore Orioles, he was signed to a 10-year deal by the Cleveland Indians, for whom he never had a winning record, going 28-48 in five seasons. He was out of baseball while his contract still had five more years to run.

The Yankees, of course, experienced this phenomenon with Gulllett, who blew out his shoulder in 1978 after the first season of a long-term deal. They were reminded of their folly with Carl Pavano and are in the middle of it again with Burnett, who has three more years to go on a contract that guarantees him another $49.5 million. They can't move Burnett, and at that price they can't bury him. All they can do is hope he comes around.

But the truth is, he probably won't. Time and again, teams get a couple of good years out of deals like this and wind up paying through the nose for years of ineffectiveness or idleness. In fact, the only pitcher I can think of who would have been worth the kind of deal the Yankees gave Sabathia is already on their roster. If, back in 2003, the Yankees had signed Mariano Rivera to a seven-year deal, they would have gotten back their investmant, and more.

But pitchers like Mo come along once in a lifetime. Pitchers like Zito and Garland and Hampton -- who got a seven-year, $105 million deal from the Colorado Rockies and returned a 21-28 record over two seasons before being traded away -- seem to come around every year.

This year, it is Cliff Lee.

Based on his past couple of seasons and especially his postseason dominance of the Yankees, Lee will no doubt want a Sabathia-type deal. And the Yankees will be eager to give it to him, if only to ensure they will never have to face him again.

But what will they get in return? Seven years of solid performance and a couple more World Series championships? Or a year or two of excellence followed by a half-decade of waste?

The lessons of the past remind us that pitchers are the least durable of baseball players and most likely to be terrible long-term investments. And the case of CC Sabathia reminds us that even the most durable and reliable of pitchers can break down under normal, if heavy, usage.

It is obvious the Yankees and their fans lust after Lee, think he is the answer to their problems and certainly worth whatever he asks for, and more than any other team is willing to give him.

But the road map for disaster is out there, and it is worth studying. The lesson is clear: When cruising for pitchers, drive carefully.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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