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Market Watch: CC Sabathia

In this regular feature on Baseball Insider, which will run throughout the winter's Hot Stove League, we will examine closely the situations, permutations and motivations of the most prominent free agents and tradeable stars on the market, player by player, and give readers a chance to vote on where they think each will wind up. Today, we begin with the biggest pitcher, literally, on the market.

LHP CC Sabathia, free agent
Age: 28
Height, weight: 6-7, 250 pounds
Career record: 117-73, 3.66 ERA
Agent: Greg Genske (Legacy Sports Group)

To the extent it is humanly possible to feel empathy toward someone who, at some point very soon, will be worth nine figures, we ask that you put aside your cynicism for a moment and consider the plight of one Carsten Charles Sabathia.

If we understand Sabathia's motivations the way we think we do -- and let's be honest: there's no way to be sure -- his foray into free agency can be characterized in the most basic, timeless human terms: as a tug-of-war between head and heart.

Sabathia was born and raised in the Bay Area of California, and has told friends he would like to return to the west coast, preferably to a National League team, all other things being equal. At some point, all other things being equal, his heart might also pull him towards the Brewers -- where he spent a glorious half-season lifting that franchise to its first postseason appearance in 25 years.

Except, of course, all other things are not equal.

The New York Yankees have made it clear they want Sabathia, and that means they will almost certainly wind up with the highest offer on the table. The Yankees are almost never outbid, and they almost never fail to land a major free agent they covet. (The last one that springs immediately to mind was Albert Belle in 1998.)

In the starkest financial terms, it could mean a difference of $40 million or more -- the difference between the offer the Brewers are believed to have made to Sabathia this week (five years, $100 million) and the one the Yankees are believed to be preparing (somewhere close, or beyond, the record-setting seven-year, $137.5 million contract the Mets gave Johan Santana last year).

Perhaps a team such as the Dodgers could bridge that gap -- although they first must decide what they're going to do about free-agents-to-be Manny Ramirez and Derek Lowe -- but it is safe to assume no one will make a final offer higher than the Yankees'. The Angels, too, are believed to be interested in Sabathia, but like the Dodgers, have their own free-agents-to-be (Mark Teixeira, Francisco Rodriguez) to deal with first.

If one of those teams splits the difference -- say, with an offer of six years, $120 million, still some $15 million-$20 million less than what the Yankees might be prepared to offer -- a reasonable person might suggest Sabathia take less money (what's another $20 million when you already have more money than you could ever spend?) in the interest of his own quality of life. In other words, follow his heart--go West, young man.

But here is where the heart-head dichotomy gets complicated.

Though it is rarely talked about, baseball's union leadership has been known to press its elite members to always take the highest offer, for the sake of the greater good of the membership. Baseball's salary structure is largely based on comparables, and the dollar figures that are commanded by the elite players at the top have a way of trickling down to the rank-and-file, pushing everyone's salaries up.

Sabathia's decision, in other words, doesn't only affect his own bottom line -- it affects everyone's. And this has almost certainly been conveyed to him. I have known players who have bucked the union and signed below-market deals to remain with their original teams, and the union made it clear to them how disappointed it was.

The Brewers' impressive offer, which was more than double the amount highest contract they have ever handed out, likely came with a deadline -- as teams in these situations typically do, so as not to be used by the player to get more money elsewhere--which Sabathia almost certainly will let pass. He has waited this long to reach free agency; he isn't likely to sign away that right so close to its arrival.

Beginning Nov. 14, other teams are allowed to begin making offers to free agents, and Sabathia has said he does not intend to drag the process out. The Yankees have every motivation to do whatever it takes to land Sabathia -- the trauma of their first non-playoff season since 1993, an acute need for starting pitching, the increased revenues from the opening of their new stadium and the increased flexibility created by shedding some $75 million in payroll.

The Yankees, in fact, may not stop at Sabathia, and could also sign A.J. Burnett and/or Derek Lowe, as General Manager Brian Cashman has said his team needs "multiple" front-line starting pitchers. But Sabathia, with eight straight seasons of 180-plus innings and a 36-17 record since the start of 2007, is quite clearly the centerpiece of their offseason strategy.

It takes a certain kind of publicity-starved player (think Alex Rodriguez, Curt Schilling, et al.) to want to play in the high-intensity, highly scrutinized New York-Boston megapolis, and there is no shame in wanting no part of it.

Earlier this summer, one of Sabathia's former Cleveland Indians teammates said Sabathia made it clear to him that he was not interested in pitching in New York or Boston.

But lately there have been reports that Sabathia's sentiment has changed, with friends supposedly saying he now craves playing in New York. This abrupt change of heart (or is it head?) dovetails nicely with the start of the free agent season, giving the appearance of being driven by agents, as opposed to Sabathia himself.

Sabathia may be torn between head and heart, but for the rest of the interested parties around him, there is no such dilemma.

By Dave Sheinin  |  November 5, 2008; 12:52 PM ET
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Next: Dodgers Open Bank For Ramirez


While I understand the financial impact - both to CC and the rest of the union, it is not that hard to imagine a player simply saying I don't want to be part of the NY media circus. NY is for many of us a very desireable place to live, but it is not easy on the family or easy on the player. What's that worth? Clearly the Yankees think its worth a $40M premium. You're talking about the difference between being very wealthy and very, very wealthy. I'd focus on happiness. Now which place will make me happy?

Posted by: natbisquit | November 6, 2008 7:58 AM | Report abuse

"Baseball's salary structure is largely based on comparables, and the dollar figures that are commanded by the elite players at the top have a way of trickling down to the rank-and-file, pushing everyone's salaries up."

In other words, the salary structure is based on GREED. When the low men on the totem pole average over a million dollars a year for playing a game, there is no such thing as "the rank-and-file." Words like that need to be reserved for those who really work for a living.

Posted by: TimDz | November 6, 2008 8:39 AM | Report abuse

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