Pettitte's Return

The news that Andy Pettitte was coming out of retirement to try to pitch one more year for the Yankees initially sounded like another annoying Steinbrenner trick. It also was a reminder of the last years of Roger Clemens’ career when the question of whether or not he was going to stay retired and return to pitching was a constant during spring training and sometimes the early part of the season. Pettitte’s status as an all-time Yankee great who remains beloved by most Yankee fans also made the decision by the team’s management easier, but even for Yankee fans the news was surprising and a bit strange.

It is also a very smart move by the Yankees who continue to upgrade their pitching rotation. Replacing AJ Burnett and Bartolo Colon with Michael Pineda, Hideki Kuroda and now Pettitte is a clear upgrade which changes Yankee starting pitching from the team’s biggest weakness to a potential strength. Pettitte is unlikely to be as effective in 2012 as he was in 2010 when between injuries he was 11-3 with a 3.28 ERA, but to be valuable to the Yankees he does not need to do that. If he pitches 125 or more innings at a league average or better ERA, Pettitte will be a good fourth or fifth starter, which is all the Yankees need.

Because Pettitte will only make $2.5 million this year, it seems like a good gamble on the part of the Yankees. Had the Yankees signed another veteran pitcher coming off an injury-ridden or off-year for that amount of money, most would view it as a savvy move by the Yankees. It seems like Pettitte’s history with the Yankees only makes this move look better for the Yankees. The upside for Pettitte is obviously quite high, particularly if he has a strong second half, after taking some time to prepare for the season, and is able to be a major factor in the post-season, but the Yankees don’t need all that for this signing to make sense.

Pettitte’s return got a response from Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine who, for some inexplicable reason, apparently feels compelled to share his views on most moves made by the Yankees, asked whether Pettitte was going to “be a starter or just come in to pick people off?” Valentine’s remark was petty, and a good spring training story, but it also suggests another potential use for Pettitte. While Pettitte is poised to become a useful back end of the rotation pitcher, a more intriguing possibility is that he could be the Yankees LOOGY. This is currently a minor weakness for the Yankees. Pettitte, given how tough he is on lefties-who he held to .185/.225/.254 in 2010, his ample experience, and yes, Mr. Valentine, his pick off move, could be very strong in this role. Pettitte may not want to do this, and the Yankees probably prefer him to make a bigger contribution as a starter, but it is another way Pettitte could possibly contribute in 2012.

The primary potential downside of the Pettitte signing is that if he can no longer pitch at the big league level, the Yankees will have to release him. If this is necessary, the financial cost to the Yankees will be relatively small, given the size of Pettitte’s contract. However, Pettitte can never be just another veteran pitcher trying to make a comeback; and the Yankees will not be able to treat him that way. This could become a problem for Joe Girardi who will probably continue to start Pettitte every fifth day as long as he is on the roster even if he is pitching poorly. This is still a risk worth taking, first because there is a good chance Pettitte can be a useful, if not star caliber, pitcher in 2012 and second because if Pettitte is unable to pitch in 2012, it is very likely he will have the sense to abort his comeback and retire again, and more permanently.