Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Life Without CC: Part Deux

(I feel ya, CC.  I'm pretty bummed about it too.  Courtesy of Getty Images)

Despite the idiotic argument of "yeah, but he hasn't been pitching like an ace this season" coming from the contingent of mouthbreathing Yankee fans and writers who have nothing better to do than stir the pot, there's no denying that CC Sabathia is the best and most important starting pitcher on the Yankee staff.  When he's healthy and in the rotation, a 4some of CC, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, and Phil Hughes can be pretty formidable, even with Nova and Hughes pitching as inconsistently as they are right now.  When he's not, a top 3 of Kuroda, Nova, and Hughes is a bit suspect, especially with Nova and Hughes pitching as inconsistently as they are right now, and the lack of depth on the back end becomes a little more exposed.  That's why it's frustrating to see CC go back on the DL for a second time in less than 2 months after never once landing on it in his first 3 years in pinstripes.

The last time Sabathia went down, things went about as well as anybody could have hoped considering the other left-hander who also ended up on the DL on June 27th.  The Yankees went 9-6 without CC, extending their division lead to 9 games in the process before CC came back.  They did it mainly on the strength of their offense, a bunch of lockdown late-inning performances from Rafael Soriano and David Robertson, and a luckily-timed poor stretch of play by the rest of their AL East competition, something that came in handy as the rest of the rotation started to regress a bit from their earlier-June performance and the bullpen started to get overworked.

Strangely enough, the Yankees' recent poor run of games started almost immediately after Sabathia returned on July 17th, not exactly the result you'd expect when the ace of the staff is brought back into the fold.  And for his part, it wasn't like CC did anything to contribute to that downturn in team play.  In his 5 starts since coming back against the Jays on July 17th, Sabathia pitched to a 3.89 ERA/3.57 FIP in 34.2 innings, with a K/BB ratio of nearly 6/1 (35 K/6 BB).  It wasn't lights out, but it was certainly a boost and something the team needed, and as usual, CC came back to provide the same type of length that is a staple of his body of work, pitching at least 6 innings in all 5 starts and throwing a complete game on August 3rd against Seattle, the same day that these elbow problems started to creep up.

The problem was that even the return of CC couldn't overcome the combined offensive slump from almost everybody in the lineup except Mark Teixeira, the struggles in the bullpen and return to earth for middle-inning guys like Eppley and Rapada, and the injury to Alex Rodriguez.  The Yankees played sub-.500 baseball in the time between Sabathia's comeback and return to the DL (11-12), and despite a recent 5-1 run they still find themselves mired in some of the problems that defined their late July-early August slump.  The offense isn't quite back on track even after a solid 4-game stretch against Detroit and Toronto, there are still issues in the middle relief corps, and the rotation is even more unstable than it was in late-June with Nova and Hughes both struggling to pitch well or deep into games recently.  The situation that the team finds itself in now is far less comfortable than it was the last time they lost CC.

And the situation for CC himself is hardly encouraging.  The Yankees can try to downplay it all they want, but the diagnosis of elbow soreness being what sends Sabathia to the DL has to raise some red flags.  Given the type of results they've had with other "minor" elbow injuries in the organization this season, those flags have to become an even brighter shade of red.  Elbow problems, even minor ones, are never good for a pitcher and I can't imagine they're any better for one who has already had injury problems this season.  As with his adductor muscle injury, Sabathia swears that this is something he could pitch through if he had to.  But I'm not sure I can take him at his word when he reportedly couldn't even touch his hand to his shoulder the other day and his wife practically had to threaten him into telling the coaching and training staff about the pain.

The good news is that the Yankees are starting to collectively turn things around and still maintain a healthy 5-game lead in the division.  The bad news is that they'll be without Sabathia through what could be a tough stretch of games in the next week plus, and the worse news could be the possibility of lingering injury effects when CC does come back.  We've seen how pesky elbow injuries can be, and the Yankees can't afford to have to shut CC down for the season like they did with ManBan.  Looking further down the road, what does this second DL trip say about CC's future?  It would be unfair and a little premature to bring up the weight issue because of this, but with the workload CC has had in the past couple years and his entire career, it may be fair to wonder if it's starting to catch up to the big fella.

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