Over the years, Yankees fans have come to rely on Andy Pettitte. For many, it seemed like the end of an era when he announced he was walking away after the 2010 season. As sad as it was for the first member of the “Core Four” to leave the team, it was even better to welcome him back late in Spring Training in 2012. Pettitte’s ability was never question as he continued to perform, despite being sidelined by a broken leg for several months. With CC Sabathia coming off an “elbow cleanup”, Michael Pineda “not on the radar”, questions about Ivan Nova and Hiroki Kuroda’s free agency, it would seem that, should Pettitte want to return in 2013, he would be a welcome addition to the Yankees. Moreover, is it possible that the return of Pettitte could be more a hindrance for the team in the long-term?
Pettitte’s performance in 2012 was not the issue. In limited action — he missed roughly three months due to a fracture in his leg suffered on a comebacker — he was spectacular. In 12 starts, Pettitte was 5-4, with a 2.87 ERA, and a 1.142 WHIP. In 75.1 innings, he allowed just 65 hits and eight walks. He also maintained a WAR of 2.4, and was worth 28 Runs Above Average (RAA)- not too shabby for a 40-year-old who missed an entire year of action.
The issue does not concern Pettitte’s anticipated performance, but rather that his taking up a place in the rotation could perhaps stunt the growth of developing pitchers, such as David Phelps. Assuming the 2013 rotation looks similar to the 2012 rotation, it would probably be Sabathia, Kuroda, Pettitte, Hughes, Nova, depending on the order. While it’s practically a given that Freddy Garcia will be passed over in 2013 it would leave Phelps to be the spot-starter/long-man in the bullpen.
Phelps excelled in short and long relief in the pen in 2012, and was a more-than-serviceable fill-in while the Yankees’ rotation took a beating in July and August. He is a young, developing pitcher who throws any pitch in any count. While Phelps’ main issue was his ability to last deep into games, the only way to build up endurance would be to work in the rotation. Additionally, there is a distinct difference between throwing out of the bullpen and out of the rotation — pacing, the ability to get through a lineup, the velocity with which you can throw the ball (emptying the tank for a short inning vs. getting through seven innings).
Pitching is at a premium, as it is a scarcity. It comes with inordinately high costs. For instance, Zack Greinke- yes that one- has an excellent chance to be the highest-paid right-hander in history this offseason. Think about that. Wouldn’t it make more sense for a team thinking about cost-control to develop a young starter to use in the rotation for the foreseeable future? Likewise, if you could develop him, wouldn’t it make more sense to develop him as a possible trade chip for other pieces in order to add some youth to a Yankees lineup that isn’t exactly young anymore?
All of that said, there is a good argument to be made about bringing back Pettitte. The Yankees could use the pitching depth, as evidenced by the multiple injuries they were able to survive with said depth in 2012. Remember, Pineda has already been discounted for 2013 by GM Brian Cashman as he comes off labrum surgery. Dellin Betances was hopelessly erratic and lacked control in the minors, leading to his demotion to Double-A Trenton from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Everyone watched Adam Warren get shellacked in his major league debut, his one and only appearance. Garcia will likely not return. Kuroda is a free agent, and no there is no guarantee he will not return to Japan. CC is coming off his elbow being “cleaned-up” after an up-and-down season. While Hughes hit his stride at the end of May, he is still largely a question mark, and a potential trade chip. Nova was a certifiable mess. That is a lot of pitchers with great resumes, but a whole lot of question marks.
The reason that the Yankees were able to survive the issues and injuries with the starting rotation had to the do with depth at the position- Nova, Hughes, Pettitte, CC, Kuroda, Phelps, Garcia- this year alone. The rotation may not have been what we thought in spring training, but it worked. Pettitte won’t be cheap, but pitching is a market inefficiency. Just when you think you have enough, you never do. Pettitte’s return may impact the ability of the team to develop young talent, hurting them in the long-term. That said, this isn’t necessarily a team that has looked at the long-term — look at the contracts given to Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, for examples. This team is about winning, and winning now. To that end, Pettitte’s return provides the best opportunity for the Yankees to win (though I don’t think they will, for a multitude of reasons that do not include pitching), even if doing so hurts them in the future.