By Ernie Palladino
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Joe Girardi should just get it over with now.
Make the tough decision. Get it out of the way.
When CC Sabathia comes back from this stint on the 15-day DL, put him in the bullpen and leave him there for the playoffs, assuming the Yanks get that far.
His days as an effective starter may be over, thanks to that barking, degenerative right knee that looks like somebody took a cheese grater to it. His best, most useful role now may have to come in two-to-three-inning chunks, or about the length of time it took him — overwhelmed by the pain — to pull himself out of Sunday’s loss against Cleveland.
Sabathia’s visit to the doctor Tuesday revealed nothing more than the simple arthritis that has afflicted his landing knee the last two seasons, at least. He ended his 2014 campaign after just eight games to have a debridement procedure done, and it indeed relieved the pain for a time. Now, after a recent cortisone shot failed to help settle it down, rest is the prescription.
The 35-year-old said he’d be able to come back afterward. And he’d be more than willing to go to the bullpen if it will help the team win. And that’s good, because for all his struggles in a 4-9, 5.27 ERA season, Sabathia has been nothing if not a competitor. Guys like that always benefit a team.
Yet, it is that quality that makes Tuesday’s news only slightly less sad than it would have been had the good doctor sent him for the ever-risky micro-fracture surgery that is often seen as a remedy for these situations. If Girardi stows him away in the bullpen, Sabathia will be embarking on a new career chapter, and probably one that will have a terribly short read.
This is not Dennis Eckersley or John Smoltz, who transitioned between starting and relieving with ease. This would be an old, injured warhorse led as close to the pasture as one can get without actually crossing the fence.
Short of Sabathia’s slow walk off the mound Sunday serving as the final vision of the six-time All-Star and former Cy Young winner, it doesn’t get tougher than realizing the pitcher with the once-blazing fastball that brought hitters to their knees simply doesn’t have the lasting power to do it anymore.
He deserves a better ending, whenever those final words get written.
But the situation is what it is, and Girardi should not hesitate about sending Sabathia to the bullpen. The Yanks will, in all likelihood, remain in this Texas death match with Toronto through September, and Girardi will need five operational arms and 10 healthy legs to give his team the best chance of winning the AL East. And, believe it, he’ll have enough to worry about with Masahiro Tanaka’s tenuous elbow situation.
It was always a matter, anyway, of whether Tanaka’s partially torn ulnar ligament or Sabathia’s knee would break down first. Tanaka actually beat Sabathia in that respect, missing all of May with a sore right wrist and forearm. But the main worry, that valuable right elbow over which Tommy John surgery looms with every pitch, has held up. He’s 7-5 since returning from the DL June 3.
By the looks of things, he might just survive the season. If the Yanks do make the postseason, he’ll be in that rotation. He’ll presumably join Michael Pineda — who will be coming off his own injury woes — Nathan Eovaldi, Ivan Nova and possibly the super-poised Luis Severino.
That leaves Sabathia for the bullpen, providing he indeed can pitch after this extended rest. Beyond that, the $25 million he’ll be owed for 2016 and the vested option that should kick in in 2017 will become a financial problem. Arthritic knees don’t go away, after all.
Not even for a competitor like Sabathia.
Girardi admitted Monday that even he didn’t think Sabathia would last 24 starts, so Sabathia has already rewarded him by eating a team-high 138 1/3 innings.
His starting role, something the left-hander has known exclusively since he broke in with Cleveland in 2001, is probably over, though. Or at least it should be. From here on in, the best use of Sabathia rests in the bullpen. Let him throw like the old CC for a couple of innings and get him out of there.
Girardi should make that decision now. It’s what is best for both the Yanks and Sabathia.
Every book has a final chapter. It’s a shame Sabathia’s can’t be a happier one.