CC Sabathia may seem out of place in an increasing younger New York Yankees’ clubhouse.
The big left-hander is now 36 years old and it has been 16 years since he broke into the major leagues with the Cleveland Indians in 2001. He is also entering his 10th season with the Yankees since signing as a free agent.
The only player on the Yankees’ projected opening-day roster older than Sabathia is designated hitter Matt Holliday, who is 37.
Yet while Sabathia is no longer the fireballer who could dominate a game, he uses his smarts to be a solid mid-rotation starter.
He also plays an important mentorship role on a team that figures to include four 24-year-olds in the starting lineup Sunday when the Yankees open against the Tampa Bay Rays at St. Petersburg, Fla. — catcher Gary Sanchez, first baseman Greg Bird, shortstop Ronald Torreyes and right fielder Aaron Judge.
“CC is a real leader,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “If there is a big game going on, CC is the guy who is either renting a box at the arena or stadium or finding a place where the whole team can watch it on TV. He’s a great teammate in the way he pulls everyone together.”
Right-hander Chad Green lost out in a six-man competition this spring for two opens spots at the back end of the rotation. However, he made his major-league debut with the Yankees last season with eight starts and four relief appearances, leaning on Sabathia for guidance.
“To be able to ask a player the caliber of CC for advice is so important,” Green said earlier this spring. “That’s one of the great things about this team. We have a lot of talented young players trying to show we belong but also a lot of veterans who are here to lean on.”
Sabathia had a solid 2016, going 9-12 with a 3.91 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 30 starts, though his average fastball was 90.0 mph, down from 94.0 in his first season with the Yankees in 2008.
The bounce-back 2016 came on the heels of a two-season stretch in which he had a 9-14 record, 4.85 ERA and 1.43 ERA in 35 starts.
While the Yankees know that Sabathia is no longer the pitcher who led the AL in wins with 19 in 2009 and 21 in 2010, they hope he can be a solid No. 3 starter behind right-handers Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda.
“CC has really become comfortable now with pitching with less velocity,” Girardi said.
Sabathia, though, isn’t content just to be a big brother figure to the young players. He still has the desire to win despite his velocity and quality of pitches being diminished by time — he has logged 3168.1 regular-season innings in his career — and chronically bad knees.
He also feels so good this year after undergoing knee surgery at the end of last season that he says would like to pitch until he is least 40. If that were to happen, it might be with another team as the Yankees continue skewing young with their pitching staff.
Sabathia wants to go out a winner if this is indeed his last year in the Bronx, even if the Yankees are in a retooling phase after missing the postseason in three of the last four seasons.
“I think we have a tremendous amount of talent,” Sabathia said. “We are very young, but I think we have a chance to be able to open up some eyes and kind of surprise some people. It’s exciting. The young guys bring some extra energy. I’m energized.”