Commentary

Sabathia to opt out? You can bank on it

CC's happy as a Yankee, but he's too smart to turn down big bucks for a new deal

Updated: February 16, 2011, 9:40 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Up front, understand that CC Sabathia has too much class to ever opt out of a monstrous contract in the middle of a clinching World Series game. He is not Alex Rodriguez. He gets it.

But also understand this: Sabathia is more likely to throw a pitch right-handed this year than he is to let his opt-out clause expire like a carton of milk.

Assuming he keeps up his New York Yankees average of 20 victories a pop, Sabathia either will vacate his $161 million deal and become a free agent, or will use his clause like a hammer to, you know, hammer out a contract extension that will take him through the construction of the next new ballpark in the Bronx.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
Noah K. Murray/US PresswireCC Sabathia isn't about to let millions of dollars slip away next winter. And who could blame him?

This isn't to say the California-born Sabathia is unhappy in the metropolitan area, because he's not. The pitcher wasn't eager to sign with the Yanks after the 2008 season, but he did arrive wearing an easy and engaging smile. Two seasons and one World Series title later, the city hasn't knocked that smile off his face.

Sabathia has been a courtside presence at Nets and Knicks games. He bought a mansion in Alpine, N.J., and he doesn't wear a Do Not Disturb sign around his neck when he's out and about.

Last week, when Sabathia showed up for a workout at Teels Baseball in Closter, N.J., he was bull-rushed by a horde of 7- and 8-year-olds wanting his autograph. CC signed for each and every one, and accommodated a few blushing parents and grandparents, too.

"He's Santa Claus," Brian Cashman told me once.

But long before anyone sends a wish list to the North Pole next winter, Santa will be opting out. Or using the threat of an opt-out to secure an extension that will make his original nine-figure deal look smaller than a rosin bag.

Why? Sabathia is a businessman, that's why. Just like the rest of us, he tries to get the best employment deal he possibly can get for himself and his family, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Asked in Tampa, Fla., whether he would become a free agent at season's end, Sabathia told reporters, "I have no idea. It is still in my contract. Anything is possible."

Anything is possible? Last year, Sabathia did not include an opt-out within the realm of possibility.

That was then; this is now. Sabathia had his reasons to temper his love for the pinstripes on Valentine's Day.

He knows another strong season would allow him to upgrade the $23 million annual average of his contract. He knows a Yankees rotation without his good friend Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte is a Yankees rotation that needs him more than ever.

He knows he can make a play for some of the money Cashman couldn't give to Lee. He knows that his agent, Greg Genske, and the players' union want him to join Albert Pujols as the biggest attractions in the offseason marketplace.

"CC obviously has the right to make a decision," Cashman said Monday by phone, "but it's an issue for another day. He's been awesome, everything we expected and hoped he could be and more, but he does have the right to see how he'd like to continue his career after this season."

To prep for a possible free-agent push, Sabathia stopping inhaling breakfast bowl after breakfast bowl of Cap'n Crunch and dropped 25 pounds. At 6-foot-7 and 290 pounds, CC still will put a lot of pressure on his surgically repaired right knee.

The Yankees worried about the big man's wear and tear when they offered him the big bucks, but after taking a pass on Johan Santana and after missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993, they were desperate enough to take the risk.

Cashman had to close the deal before the Angels tried to sell him on staying closer to home. Sabathia wasn't sure he wanted to pitch in New York, and he was concerned about reports that tension between Rodriguez and Derek Jeter had divided the Yankees' clubhouse. In a top-secret home visit, Cashman told the recruit that his neighborly personality would help fix what was broken, even told him he could end up as grand marshal of the Thanksgiving Day parade.

"You will light up the city, I promise you," the GM assured Sabathia.

Cashman likened his pitch to the kind delivered by John Calipari. And in true Calipari form, Cashman persuaded his blue-chipper to sign the letter of intent.

Sabathia will be 35 when the current seven-year deal is up in 2015, and he hopes to pitch until he's 40. So the Yankees ace will want more years and more dollars from someone.

If Sabathia decides in the fall he wants to finish his career on the West Coast, his options might be limited. The defending champion Giants don't need starting pitchers, the Dodgers are in disarray, the Moneyball A's can't afford Sabathia and Arte Moreno's Angels don't have the Steinbrennerian stomach for the free-agent fight.

But if the Dodgers and Mets find new ownership groups looking to make a splash with a distinguished Yankee, Sabathia might be in business. He could use either or both potential suitors to get himself a nice, fat raise.

The Yanks have a policy against renegotiating multiyear deals, but baseball policies are much like baseball records, made to be broken. And as if the very mention of the opt-out term roused him from a deep slumber, Hank Steinbrenner, the man who rewarded A-Rod's 2007 opt-out with an absurd $305 million deal (including a now-soiled $30 million bonus plan for shattering home run records), weighed in Monday with a prediction that Sabathia is "here to stay."

It's been a sweet marriage to date, and it would be a shame if negotiations with Sabathia mirror the negotiations with Jeter and devolve into an Islanders-Penguins game.

Like Jeter, Sabathia will continue carrying himself with dignity and grace. Like Jeter, the pitcher will do so while chasing the most money he can get.

You can take that to the bank.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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