The news that Andy Pettitte was signing a minor league deal with the Yankees brought a much-needed jolt of excitement to the excruciating tease that is Spring Training. I personally have heard enough of the banalities of what kind of shape a player is in, how they are looking at the plate in a 10 at bat sample, and how hard Pitcher X is throwing. The Pettitte news brought a whole new storyline to the table that could have a major impact on the Yankees this season, which will be very interesting to follow as a fan and a blogger. While I am definitely excited about the possibility of seeing Andy pitch again, I have a conflicted thoughts about the subject.
The good: Andy is one of my favorite Yankees of all time (along with Paul O’Neill), and it will be a joy to watch him pitch for the Yankees again. He should provide some strong veteran leadership for the Yankees’ young pitchers (Pineda, Nova, Hughes), serving an elder statesmen role and leading by example with his strong work ethic.
From a baseball perspective, it’s hard to know what Pettitte has left, but he did have a solid 2.4 WAR, 3.89 xFIP season in 2010, which provides hope that he could be at least league average going forward. Andy’s fastball sat in the 89 MPH range his last few seasons, showing that he doesn’t need top-notch velocity to be an effective pitcher. Pettitte succeeded by commanding the fastball, changing speeds, and mixing in an effective cutter and curve (plus the occasional change). He has shown the ability to succeed without top notch velocity, and would likely have to do the same in 2012.
MARCEL projects Pettitte to pitch only 73 innings this year (presumably because it will take him some time to get into shape, and the injury risk would be high in an older pitcher), but the projection is fairly optimistic for a guy who has been out of the league for a year (5-3, 4.06 ERA, 4.07 FIP, 6.78 k/9, 3.08 bb/9). Although counting on Pettitte for a lot of innings would probably not be the best idea, those rate stats would lead to a lot of success in his comeback attempt, and help him be an asset to the Yankee rotation.
There’s not a spot for Pettitte in the rotation right now, but there is little downside to adding another good pitcher to the mix for depth purposes. These logjams often have a tendency to work themselves out, due to injury or ineffectiveness.
The bad: As excited as I am for Pettitte’s return, there are several potential complications. The main one is that the Yankees currently have 6 legitimate starters for 5 rotation spots without including Pettitte, meaning a potentially effective pitcher would have to lose his spot for Pettitte to return to the rotation. This is a good problem in the short-term, but could cause long-term ramifications for the likes of Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova.
At this point, Phil Hughes would be the most likely person to get replaced, which would throw a huge wrench into the plan to gauge his value as a starter this season. Replacing Hughes with Pettitte would likely eliminate the possibility of Hughes being a long-term rotation option for the Yankees, and cheap starters like Phil could be valuable if the Yankees are serious about the austerity budget. Nova could also wind up being replaced if Hughes starts off strong and Nova struggles out of the gate.
Although Pettitte will take some time to get ready, once he is ready it will be hard for Joe Girardi (both for baseball and PR purposes) to deny him a rotation spot. This likely leaves Hughes and Nova on very short leashes at the beginning of the season, as a slow start could cost them their spot. This pressure could help motivate them to improve, or could force the Yankees to stunt their development by moving them to the bullpen or AAA to make room for Pettitte. I can already envision a media controversy that could be very distracting to the players.
Of course, there are always concerns about how effective the 39 year old Pettitte will be after a year out of baseball. There is no guarantee that he will be the same pitcher he was in 2010, and he may take some lumps as he rounds back into form. However, it could be hard to yank a franchise icon from the rotation if he performs poorly. If Andy were willing to accept a long relief role assuming Nova and Hughes were both pitching effectively, that would be the optimal solution in my mind.
Overall, I think the positives outweigh the negatives here, but these are factors to consider as we follow Andy Pettitte’s return to the Yankees. He certainly wasn’t a major need for the team, but the potential to be a major asset on and off the field will hopefully offset the controversy/distraction that he might bring to the rotation. Fortunately, Pettitte is a humble, private guy, so I imagine that he will keep his mouth shut about his role and let Joe Girardi make the decision. I can’t see this ending poorly enough to tarnish Pettitte’s great legacy, as there are enough reasonable people involved to ensure the best outcome. It will be fun to watch Andy stare down opposing hitters from under the brim of his pulled-down cap again, and I look forward to seeing him making his eventual return to the Bronx.
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