Just when it looked like the Yankees' "Core Four" would soon be down to one after the offseason retirement of Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera hinting his own departure from the game, its numbers have swelled to three after Andy Pettitte signed a minor league deal with his old club in hopes of joining the Yankees rotation. According to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, Pettitte, who retired after the 2010 season, will not be considered for a bullpen role.
Though the 39-year-old lefty won't be ready to break camp with the team, he could join the Yankees in April or May, at which point he would give New York a seventh candidate for their rotation. The Yankees have made no meaningful commitment to Pettitte, the $2.5 million he'd make in the majors this year is not guaranteed and there are no escalator clauses in his deal. But given his standing as one of the franchise's all-time great home-grown hurlers and how well he pitched in the two years prior to his early retirement at age 38 (25-11, 3.81 ERA in 2009 and 2010 combined), it's difficult to imagine that the team wouldn't clear room for him in its rotation if all goes well in his preparation for the season.
Pettitte's return, which seemed to come out of nowhere (though, in reality has been under consideration by both player and team since early December, according to on-air comments by Cashman during the Yankees' exhibition game on Friday), prompts a host of questions, but the most significant address how good Pettitte can be after a year off and whose spot he will take in the rotation.
It doesn't seem like a stretch to say that Pettitte, who will turn 40 in mid-June and hasn't thrown a major league pitch since October 2010, could actually come very close to approaching his pre-retirement level of effectiveness. Though he amassed 240 wins and a reputation as a postseason hero over his first 16 major league seasons, Pettitte was never really an ace pitcher. Only once in his career did he post an ERA+ over 130 in a season in which he qualified for the ERA title and he never struck out as many as eight men per nine innings in such a season. Rather, he was an above-average workhorse, a strong No. 3 or weak No. 2 in terms of his place in a championship-quality rotation. A big-bodied lefty (6-foot-5, 235 pounds per Baseball-Reference.com), Pettitte threw only hard enough to make his occasionally outstanding breaking stuff effective, just scraping the low 90s at best while dicing batters up with cutters, curves, changeups, and sliders, and was equally effective against left- and right-handed hitters over the course of his career.
The tipping point for Pettitte's contract was a secret bullpen session that he threw on Tuesday morning for Cashman, Yankees manager Joe Girardi, and pitching coach Larry Rothschild. One assumes that, if those three saw enough to sign Pettitte in that session, what they saw was not velocity but command and movement on his breaking pitches. If Pettitte has that, he can be a solid No. 3 for the Yankees behind veteran horses CC Sabathia and Huroki Kuroda.
The one caveat is that he can fully prepare for the season. The good news for Pettitte and the Yankees is that his return didn't come completely out of the blue. Pettitte began throwing in early December, prompted by a radio interview with Cashman in which the Yankees GM was asked if he had or would reach out to Pettitte as a rotation option for the 2012 season (Cashman said no). When Pettitte notified Cashman soon after that he was considering a return, Cashman offered him a contract comparable to his 2010 deal (in the $10-12 million range, per Cashman's on-air comments on Friday), but Pettitte said that he wasn't completely committed to returning just yet. Cashman then went out and signed Kuroda and traded for Michael Pineda, prompting Pettitte to discontinue his workouts, but after a week or so, Pettitte realized he missed it and began throwing again. He approached Cashman again soon after arriving in Yankees camp as a special instructor, prompting Tuesday's tryout and Friday's minor league deal.
Pettitte said on a post-signing conference call on Friday that his arm feels good, but his legs are way behind and he won't be ready to pitch in a game for 2-3 weeks. A game, in this case, would likely mean an extended spring training or minor league game, of which he'll likely need several to be ready for major league action. That would put his return to the majors around late April at the earliest and would thus limit him to 170 innings or so this season rather than his customary 200.
Still, 170 innings of Andy Pettitte at anything close to his pre-retirement level would be an improvement on what the Yankees could expect from Freddy Garcia, who is currently the sixth man on their rotation depth chart and hasn't thrown 160 innings in a season since 2006. Then again, Pettitte hasn't thrown that much since 2009 due to the two months he missed with a groin strain in 2010. Putting Pettitte ahead of Garcia on the depth chart makes him the first option to replace whichever one of the Yankees' three comparatively young and unproven right-handed starters -- 23-year-old Pineda, 25-year-old sophomore Ivan Nova, or fellow 25-year-old Phil Hughes -- inspires the least confidence in the team by the time Pettitte is ready.
There has been some concern about Pineda's fastball velocity this spring, but his slider looked sharp in his last spring outing on Thursday, and his changeup, which was the pitch the Yankees most wanted him to focus on this spring, is making significant progress. In terms of results, Pineda has posted a 3.24 ERA and struck out seven men in 8 1/3 innings in three spring starts. Pineda's fastball has been sitting in the low-90s, which is plenty fast to succeed with two good off-speed pitches, and the Yankees continue to believe that his missing velocity (he averaged in the mid-90s last year, often reaching the upper 90s) will return as he gains strength heading into the season.
Hughes' missing velocity a year ago was the first sign of a shoulder injury that cost him most of the first half of the season, but his fastball is back up to speed. While he hasn't struck out very many men this spring, he has walked just one and allowed just one run in 7 1/3 exhibition innings. Nova had the worst outing of the trio when he allowed five runs in 2 2/3 innings in his second spring start, but he rebounded nicely on Tuesday, striking out three and walking none in four scoreless innings against the Red Sox.
The Yankees are heavily invested in Pineda, having traded one of the top hitting prospects in all of baseball in Jesus Montero for Pineda's last five team-controlled years, but Hughes, who was the team's top draft pick in 2004, has just two team-controlled years left, was a dominant short reliever on the 2009 World Champions, and is already making seven figures via arbitration, while Nova was never really expected to be an impact starter in the major leagues. Given the nature of pitching, such surpluses are often solved by injury or poor performance, which seems likely to be the case here as well, but if everyone remains healthy and effective, one imagines Hughes or Nova will be the odd man out, with Hughes' prior success as a set-up man possibly coming back to haunt him as he continues to try to establish himself as a major league starter.
As for Pettitte, now that he has signed a deal, his work begins in earnest. He's expected to report to camp as a player on Tuesday, after which he'll have at least a month of work to do in preparation for the major leagues. In the meantime, he'll likely have to endure slings and arrows from those accusing him of taking a job from one of the kids, or from those worrying that he could tarnish his legacy if his comeback isn't a success.
Neither of those are likely concerns to Pettitte or the Yankees, however. From the Yankees' perspective, if Pettitte can recapture his 2009 or 2010 form, he'll improve their rotation, and he will, even if only slightly. From Pettitte's perspective, his legacy can only benefit from his success. Failure would be a mere footnote, though Pettitte did make one admission on Friday, "I am embarrassed to be coming back," he said on his conference call, "but what can I do? My desire has changed."