LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Some time during the summer of 1998, a first-round draft pick approached a double-A closer and made a lasting impression.
The first-round pick, CC Sabathia, remains a coveted free agent even after 17 big-league seasons. As for the closer, he’d spend just one more year playing professional baseball before moving to the front office. But even now, Ross Atkins still remembers that first meeting.
At the time, Atkins played for the double-A Akron Aeros. He saved 10 games for a team that won its division handily behind contributions from future big-leaguers such as Marco Scutaro, John McDonald and Dave Roberts.
As the playoffs approached, Cleveland farm director Mark Shapiro decided his first-rounder could benefit from a playoff environment, so he had Sabathia join Akron as an inactive player. Soon after joining the team, Sabathia approached Atkins.
“Ross, nice to meet you. CC Sabathia.”
The left-hander’s poise impressed Atkins, who’s seven years Sabathia’s senior.
“I was like ‘How does this 18-year-old kid know who I am, know my first name and have the awareness to come up and say hello and introduce himself,” Atkins recalls. “I was absolutely blown away.”
Nearly two decades later, the Blue Jays hope that their relationships with Sabathia will help give them a legitimate chance at signing him as a free agent. Though Atkins wouldn’t confirm or deny that talks took place with the 37-year-old, the Blue Jays would quite clearly like to add him to their starting rotation.
There’s an obstacle, though: the New York Yankees also need rotation help and are believed to have real interest in re-signing Sabathia. Could the Blue Jays convince him to choose Toronto when the Yankees just added reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton?
“I don’t know if I could convince him to do anything but hopefully somebody could,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “He’s got to like what they have done over there. I’m sure they would want him back.”
The Yankees have history with Sabathia after nine seasons in the Bronx. To some extent the Blue Jays have history on their side, too. Shapiro forged a strong bond with the left-hander in Cleveland, Atkins has known him since he was a prospect and Gibbons has long respected him from afar.
“I love him. I’ve always liked him,” Gibbons said. “He’s a workhorse, man. He’s always pitched well against us. One of the great competitors in the game.”
Relationships aside, Sabathia remains an effective pitcher even as he prepares for his 18th MLB season. He posted a 3.69 ERA in 148.2 innings then followed that up with a 2.37 ERA in four playoff starts. Adding to his appeal, he could be available on a one-year deal that would leave the Blue Jays with enough financial flexibility to address their infield and outfield needs.
As he enters his age-37 season with a history of knee issues, Sabathia’s by no means a sure thing. That said, he’d be a legitimate upgrade over Joe Biagini, who could then be optioned to triple-A as rotation depth instead of starting the season at the MLB level.
“(Sabathia offers) leadership, big-game ability,” Atkins said. “He’s not going to back down from any challenge. Strike thrower. (On) the biggest stages, he’s proven he’s still more than effective.”
As ever, the Blue Jays are considering alternative after alternative. Sabathia still seems likely to choose the Yankees, and if he does the Blue Jays will pursue other starters in free agency and trades. But if he doesn’t return, there’s seemingly a good chance the Blue Jays would be his choice.
Either way, the Blue Jays have made enough progress in recent days that they could conceivably complete a few deals within the next couple of weeks. If Sabathia’s open to leaving New York, Atkins sounds more than ready to build on a relationship a long time in the making.
“He’s just continued to be the same person,” Atkins said. “He’s been through a lot. He’s obviously had not just highs, he’s had some lows, too, and he’s still the same exact human being.”