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yankees countdown

Yankees Countdown: No. 4, CC Sabathia

The start of the baseball season is less than a month away. Every weekday until opening day, we'll be counting down, from No. 20 to No. 1, the most important Yankees players for the upcoming 2010 slate. Today, No. 4, pitcher CC Sabathia.

It seemed that every time the Yankees acquired a pitcher during the aughts — be it Jeff Weaver or Carl Pavano or even Mike Mussina — someone would make the argument that he'd face less pressure with the Yankees because he wouldn't really be expected to be the team's ace. (It's one of those arguments that we all make from time to time because we like to play dime-store psychologist, even though it doesn't necessarily translate to actual on-field performance.) Anyway, the same couldn't be said about CC Sabathia: The Yankees didn't make him the best-paid pitcher in the history of the sport to slot him behind Chien-Ming Wang.

And after a stellar season (nineteen wins, a 3.37 ERA, and a fourth-place finish in the Cy Young voting), Sabathia achieved the fabled True Yankee status — or at least earned some sort of junior membership in the club — during the ALCS, allowing just two earned runs in sixteen innings over two games, the second of which came on short rest. It's been a while since they'd had a pitcher who could do that. Sabathia has the support of a potent lineup, just like those who came before him, but he doesn't rely on it in quite the same way. (Look no further than Randy Johnson's 2006 campaign, when he won seventeen games while pitching to a bloated 5.00 ERA.) Sabathia would be the ace on most teams — and has been on three of them now. He'd put up impressive numbers wherever he pitched. $161 million means we get to watch him put them up in New York.

One of the nice things about the Yankees' comfortable lead in the A.L. East last September was that it allowed them to keep Sabathia's innings count down. He's capable of throwing 250 innings just like he's capable of pitching on three days' rest. But you only want him to do that when it's absolutely necessary. It's obnoxious to say the Yankees not only need to finish ahead of the Red Sox and Rays but do so by a healthy margin — but it's hard to argue that it didn't help last year.

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Photo: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images