You can never have enough pitching. At least that seems to be the message the Yankees are sending with the bombshell announcement that Andy Pettitte has come out of retirement to sign a minor league contract worth $2.5 million.
According to Brian Cashman, the Yankees and Pettitte first discussed a reunion back in December, before the team signed Hiroki Kuroda and traded for Michael Pineda, but at that time, the lefty wasn’t ready to make a commitment. Had he accepted the Yankees’ initial $10 million-plus offer, Pettitte would have been a richer man and the team would probably look a lot different today. Nonetheless, the Yankees now have seven potential starters for five slots, so some difficult decisions lay ahead.
The addition of Pettitte won’t have an immediate impact on the Yankees plans. Despite staying in shape and throwing bullpens during the offseason, Pettitte still hasn’t pitched since October 2010. So, even if he is able to complete his comeback, it will likely take until at least the middle of May. As a result, what started as Spring Training competition for the last rotation slot could turn into an extended audition that lasts well into the regular season.
It makes no sense for the Yankees to show their hand now because, based on Cashman’s comments, the team is playing it by ear. The first hurdle is making sure Pettitte is healthy enough to resume a regular routine. Then, the Yankees have to judge his effectives. Should he falter along the way, the scenarios being pondered would become moot. However, if Pettitte makes it back to the big leagues, some difficult decisions will ensue.
Before getting too far of ahead of themselves, the Yankees have to name a fifth starter coming out of camp. The odds-on favorite had been Phil Hughes, but does that change with the specter of Andy Pettitte? If the team’s internal plan is to convert Hughes to a reliever upon Pettitte’s return, wouldn’t it make sense to send him to the bullpen now and hand over the fifth starter’s job to Freddy Garcia? That approach would serve two purposes. Not only would it give Joe Girardi an entire season to carve out Hughes role, but it would also provide a showcase for Garcia, whom the Yankees could trade when Pettitte is ready to return.
What about if Hughes isn’t destined to be a reliever? Converting him now would make it difficult to reverse course mid-season should Pettitte’s comeback falter. Also, it would likely extinguish the Yankees last chance to see if the right hander could finally develop into a successful starter. As a result, the first decision facing the Yankees is to continue with business as usual, or make early concessions for the presumed return of Pettitte.
If the Yankees opt to start the season with Hughes in the rotation, and every member of the staff is pitching well when Pettitte is ready to return, the matter gets even trickier. Under that scenario, Cashman would be faced with the impossible task of fixing something that isn’t broken. It’s hard to manage an effective Ivan Nova or Pineda being demoted, so it’s likely Hughes would once again get the shaft. Then again, the team could opt to use a six-man rotation. Assuming it could be structured in such a way to ensure that C.C. Sabathia pitches every fifth day (the big lefty will likely demand it), that approach would both lessen the wear and tear on the older Pettitte and Kuroda and help limit the innings of Pineda, who would enter a danger zone if he pitched a full regular and post season.
The scenarios described above are usually considered “good problems”, but what happens if Kuroda and/or Pineda are struggling when Pettitte is ready to join the team? Would the Yankees dare remove the high priced veteran from the rotation or send its prized off-season acquisition to the minors after only six weeks? Considering the cost to acquire both players, Cashman might not be comfortable cutting the cord so early, but if the other starters are pitching well, he might not have a choice. In that sense, Girardi’s early spring declaration that no one was guaranteed a spot in the rotation could turn out to be dramatic foreshadowing.
Over the next two months, there will be constant discussion about how the Yankees will structure their starting rotation once Pettitte comes back. An injury, trade, or ineffectiveness could intervene in the meantime, but until the Yankees outline a plan, the speculation will only increase with time. Will that be a distraction or motivation for the members of the rotation likely to be impacted by the disruption? The answer to that question may not only determine who remains in the rotation, but also render a verdict on the wisdom of the Yankees’ decision to make such a dramatic addition.