The New York Yankees are Elizabeth Taylor, ever susceptible to the charms of old flames, and so sprouted their latest remarriage Friday. Andy Pettitte is back for $2.5 million, a pittance if age hasn't weathered his 39-year-old left arm. What it says about him is obvious: Pettitte, like so many athletes, like so many Yankees, couldn't quit the game cold turkey. Being forced out is hard enough. Leaving on your own volition only to realize it's all you know is a recipe for regret and return.
What Pettitte's comeback says about the Yankees is far more interesting: They are concerned about their starting pitching.
No Yankees official will admit this publicly because there's no sense in pulling the fire alarm three weeks before opening day. But consider: Among an out-of-shape Michael Pineda's disappearing fastball velocity, a heretofore-underperforming Phil Hughes and an injured Freddy Garcia, the Yankees face rotation questions. And their willingness this offseason to say no to another of the Core Four, Jorge Posada, because they felt he had nothing left proves this isn't just a favor to Pettitte, who called the team last week asking back.
While it's impossible to judge the legitimacy of the concern this early, the signing of Pettitte is practically no-lose for the Yankees. He is beloved in the clubhouse and by fans. He's left-handed, a side from which it's far easier to navigate major-league lineups with lesser stuff. Similarly, he's not a pitcher who ever relied on velocity, so any dip there wouldn't affect him as it did, say, Roger Clemens. Pettitte's salary is next to nothing, and even better, it's on a minor-league contract, so he can prove himself in extended spring training and the minors before the Yankees guarantee it.
Certainly the nostalgia factor makes Pettitte's signing a resounding positive for Yankees fans who cherish anything that reminds them of their '90s dynasty. If Scott Brosius ever ran for president, he could at very least bank on New York's 29 electoral votes. This goes beyond wistful reminiscence, of course, because the Yankees are far too big and smart a brand to troll their fans by bringing back a star for bringing-him-back's sake.
By signing Pettitte, the Yankees not only are saying they plan on handing him a rotation spot eventually, they're saying they plan on taking one away from the current candidates. Of them, CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda are in. Beyond that is where the questions begin and the Yankees show their priorities.
All three of their young starters – Pineda, Hughes and Ivan Nova – have at least one option, which means they could get sent to the minor leagues without first being offered to other teams. If Garcia's bruised hand heals quickly, manager Joe Girardi faces myriad possibilities even before Pettitte's arrival.
He can start the three kids and use Garcia in long relief. He can shift Hughes into a late-inning role in which he thrived three years ago. Or he and general manager Brian Cashman can send Pineda to Triple-A – a possibility Girardi has suggested even though the 22-year-old last year struck out more than a batter an inning – and go with Sabathia, Kuroda, Nova, Hughes and Garcia.
Juggling the balancing of a roster with the growth of the young players and the feelings of anger, resentment or failure that accompany role reassignment is often the most difficult job of a manager. The Yankees traded Jesus Montero, their best hitting prospect since Robinson Cano, for Pineda with the idea he'd grow into a co-No. 1 with Sabathia. They've flip-flopped on where Hughes is best suited: in the rotation, which they believe, or the bullpen, where he has found the most success. Rival executives and advanced metrics expect a regression from Nova this season, and the likelihood of Garcia repeating his success last year junking along at 87 mph is minimal.
And that was all before Pettitte came along. The Yankees wagered his contributions will outweigh any collateral damage they cause, and it's a smart bet. Pitching depth is among the greatest assets a team can have, and to get it at a Black Friday price – Pettitte types on the open market command $12 million or so – makes it all the better for New York.
It's pretty good for him, too. Pettitte once again gets to revel in the adulation of New York crowds. He could bolster a Hall of Fame case that may gain credence if the electorate inducts Jack Morris in the next vote. He can counterbalance the focus on him when he potentially testifies in Clemens' perjury case that starts a month from today with that of a comeback likely to be nearing its completion.
When Pettitte retired last year, he, like his buddy Clemens, took the word retire loosely. "I guess you can never say never," Pettitte said.
He didn't, and now he's back. The Yankees' worries – the ones that have grown evident over the last month in Tampa – prompted it. And if anything was going to placate them, it was the player craving another taste coming to the team in search of championship No. 28 – the old couple together for one final hurrah.
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