We're a mere 2 days away from pitchers and catchers reporting, and already the spring storylines are starting to come out in a big way. Guys are showing up to camp early, former team greats are stopping by to throw BP, and we're starting to get an idea of where some guys are in their preparatory process for the upcoming season.
Even taken with the requisite grain of salt, the most positive early spring story seems to belong to CC Sabathia. He's reportedly been throwing all offseason, is weeks ahead of where he usually is in terms of throwing off a mound, and according to him he feels great both physically and mentally. While nobody at the highest levels of decision making in the organization has come right out and said it, all expectations are that Sabathia will be in the rotation as the 5th starter at the end of Spring Training as long as he is physically able. That physical ability is always a big if for the big fella these days, but in looking back to his 2015 season I can't help but think that maybe the Yankees unlocked the right formula for how to manage CC and get the most out of him.
Flashback to last August 24th, when Sabathia went on the DL with right knee inflammation. He had left the previous day's game early after getting knocked around and no longer being able to manage the pain in the knee. Sabathia spent the minimum 15 days on the DL before returning to game action on September 9th and he spent those days getting treatment on the knee, resting it, and getting fitted for the protective brace he wore for the remainder of the season. Over his final 5 starts, Sabathia pitched to a 2.17 ERA (3.93 FIP) with better velocity and a higher strikeout rate than he had shown for the rest of the season. In 4 of those 5 starts, he gave up 1 earned run or fewer. He was still pretty much a 6-inning pitcher, but at least he was competitive in those 6 innings and gave his team a better chance to win than he was giving them prior to the DL trip.
Now that could have been small sample size luck, but given the uptick in velocity and the fact that Sabathia was able to come back stronger after only 15 days off, it sure felt like it had to be something more than that. The brace gave CC the support and confidence he needed to throw at maximum effort, and the results of that max effort suggest that CC can still throw his fastball with enough zip to be effective when he feels good about the knee. With Sabathia planning to pitch with the brace from here on out, I think it's safe to feel a little bit better about the knee and how much wear and tear it can stand over the course of this season.
But what about the time to rest the knee? That seemed to do CC a lot of good too before he came back and no matter how good that brace is, I don't think it's going to be good enough to completely eliminate the wear and tear. At some point, CC is probably going to need some time off to have the knee drained and get some treatment on it. Knowing how it worked out last August-September and anticipating the need for it this season, why can't the Yankees proactively plan to work in a DL stint sometime for "right knee inflammation" again and give CC a blow?
The simplest thing might be to just schedule it around the All-Star break. We already know Joe is going to take extra steps to manage his rotation's workload early in the year and the combination of early scheduled off-days and the occasional 6th starter should make that fairly painless. Getting Sabathia off his feet for a couple weeks around the ASB would allow the team to rest and treat that right knee while missing the minimum amount of game time, which would also help make Joe's job a little easier in handling the 6th starter.
Sabathia threw 167.1 innings in 29 starts last season, and I think that's a fair benchmark to set for managing his workload in 2016. Another 160-170 innings over 27-29 starts with extra rest and a 2-3 week break scheduled in could be the best way to get the most out of whatever he truly has left. It's a tad manipulative to think about injuries and injury management in this way, but nobody is in much of a position to question the legitimacy of a plan like this based on the history of Sabathia's knee. Chances are good that they're going to have to do this anyway, so it's not like it would be a complete Al Czervik "my arm, it's broken!" move.
Something like this would definitely require the injury cooperation of the rest of the rotation, and that may be a lot to ask for, but if they can pull it off I think this is something the Yankees and CC have to think about. It helps him physically and it helps the team on the field if they can pull it off.