Yankees won't ride Sabathia too hard

CC Sabathia affects that broad, just-chill grin when you ask about the durability of his arm, which is the exactly the response you'd expect from the Yankees' least neurotic player.

All those innings since 2007? All that crushing responsibility? Sabathia smiles so broadly his eyes somehow turn to slits. "I don't even think about those things," says the big man.

The Yankees love their ace for being so low-key, but that's not to say Sabathia's cumulative workload won't be carefully monitored in 2010 and beyond. It has to be: Over the last three seasons, including the playoffs, no pitcher in the majors has thrown as many innings (775), or shouldered as much responsibility.

Sabathia, only 29, is young enough to be amused by the concern, but manager Joe Girardi is taking steps to keep the lefthander fresh. He's lightened Sabathia's workload this spring, reducing the number of bullpen and live batting practice sessions. Additionally, Yankee pitchers were instructed not to begin throwing breaking pitches into the second week of camp.

The Yankees are protective of Sabathia for two very obvious reasons. First, they've made him the richest pitcher in baseball with a $163 million contract that runs through 2015.

Second, and even more importantly, Sabathia is the Yankees' best hope of holding off the Red Sox this summer. He's the Bombers' Game 7 answer to Josh Beckett or John Lackey.

Make no mistake, if the Yankees' season is reduced to one game, no one craves that kind of end-of-the-world pressure more than Sabathia. As easy-going as he is before and after games, Sabathia is as competitive as any Yankees ace in the last decade -- as tough as Roger Clemens, without the false bravado. As hard-throwing as Randy Johnson, without the personality disorder. As cerebral as Mike Mussina, minus the fussiness.

"CC is the kind of guy you want on your side in a big game, because you can tell nothing bothers him," said Jorge Posada. "He gives everyone confidence because he's got that confidence in himself."

The Yankees would pitch Sabathia every day, in a perfect world. He rattles less easily than A.J. Burnett, has better stuff than Andy Pettitte and, unlike Javier Vazquez, has a proven track record in the postseason.

Girardi, however, knows he's playing a zero sum game with all his pitchers, particularly Sabathia -- the more pitches and innings the Yankees extract from Sabathia's arm today, the sooner his day of reckoning will come. Even though the Bombers used Sabathia on three days' rest throughout the 2009 postseason, they made sure they throttled back his workload during the summer.

Sabathia exceeded 100 pitches in 27 of his 34 starts and went beyond 110 pitches 14 times. But Sabathia was never overly taxed in back-to-back starts.

On June 11, when Sabathia threw 123 pitches against the Red Sox, he threw only 109 in his next start against the Nationals. Two months later, when the Yankees leaned on Sabathia for another 123-pitch appearance against Boston, they limited him to 105 and 94 pitches, respectively, in his next two starts.

The Yankees point to one other statistic that addresses Sabathia's durability. He was only 52nd in the majors in pitches per inning last year, averaging just 15.2.

"CC is so capable of dominating hitters, he can blow through a lineup without having to work too hard," said pitching coach Dave Eiland. "So when you look at the innings (total), it may look like a lot, but it doesn't tell the whole story."

Sabathia might someday thank the Yankees for their caution, but it's not like he's worrying about it now.

Ask how often he experiences soreness in his arm, especially on the day after he pitches, and Sabathia says, simply, "I'm lucky, man. Hardly ever."

Would he prefer to stick to a conventional four-man rotation this October, just to keep his arm fresh? Sabathia says, "I'll take the ball whenever they give it to me. I really don't mind pitching on three days' (rest)."

Has he learned any tricks to preserve his arm over a long season?

"It's too early to think that way," says Sabathia, grinning again, obviously determined to remain forever young.

Jeter and the Yankees (Part One):

You can forget about Derek Jeter ever leaving the Yankees as a free agent this winter. That's a guarantee both sides can make, even though the shortstop's contract will be allowed to expire at the conclusion of the regular season.

Ok, Jeter's staying. But what's he really worth? Jeter's agent, Casey Close, called the Yankees after the World Series, asking that very question. GM Brian Cashman politely told Close there'd be no talk about contracts until after 2010. The Yankees effectively blew off Jeter in the first move of what promises to be an intriguing chess match.

The Bombers are keenly aware of Jeter's current leverage. His average soared 34 points between 2008 and 2009, he matched a career-high .986 fielding percentage, raised his Ultimate Zone Rating to 6.6 and copped his fourth Gold Glove.

It didn't hurt that the Yankees were coming off their first world championship in a decade. And every day that Jeter avoids a steroids crisis (like Alex Rodriguez) or sex scandal (like Tiger Woods) his lifestyle becomes that much more attractive to the image-conscious Yankees.

But Jeter is going to want to a raise over his current $21 million annual salary, and he's going to want a contract at least until age 42, just like A-Rod. That's six more years, but before the Yankees write Jeter one more big check, they'll have a question of their own.

Would Jeter be open to -- some day -- playing another position?

To be continued.