Deal is $7.5M less than Yankees' offer

Updated: December 12, 2003, 7:24 PM ET news services

HOUSTON -- Andy Pettitte followed his heart back home to Houston, making a "gut-wrenching'' decision Thursday to leave the New York Yankees and accept a $31.5 million, three-year contract with the Houston Astros.

Tom Candiotti's Take
Tom Candiotti
The Astros in recent years have been competitive offensively, with a strong lineup in a hitter-friendly ballpark. When young starters Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt, the Olympic star, arrived on the scene, they gave Astros fans hope.

But they've always come up short, having never won a postseason series. What they've been missing is that one guy who's been there and done that, who knows what it takes to make a club a champion.

In Andy Pettitte, the Astros have found that guy. I didn't think Houston would land him -- I didn't think the Yankees would let him go.

Pettitte has succeeded in the regular season and excelled in the postseason, winning some huge October games in his nine years with the Yankees. It's a bonus for Houston that he's a left-hander (Oswalt and Miller are right-handers) and relatively young (31). The Astros can now match Pettitte up against other No.1 starters and feel they have the upper hand.

Looking at the NL Central, the Cubs still have the best starting rotation, led by Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. But the Astros are much closer now. And Houston has an edge in the bullpen. Plus, the Cubs can't match Houston's offensive firepower.

Pettitte is well-suited for hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park. With a great curveball and cutter, he thrives on pitching inside to right-handers and getting in their kitchen, breaking bats and inducing ground balls.

Another factor that will benefit Pettitte is the change of leagues. I believe AL pitchers who go to the NL always have an opportunity to dominate early. Pettitte will no longer pitch against the DH, facing the pitcher's bat instead. And most NL hitters haven't seen him before, which is definitely an advantage for the pitcher.

ESPN baseball analyst Tom Candiotti was a major-league pitcher for 16 seasons.

After winning four World Series championships and six AL pennants in New York, Pettitte hopes his winning ways will help lead Houston to its first-ever title. And he'd like an old friend to join him -- Pettitte is trying to get Roger Clemens to push back retirement and pitch for the Astros next season.

"I left him this morning. He's still working out with me. We'll see what happens," Pettitte said. "I know the media's already hit him up on that, and if I feel there's a chance, I'll hit him up on it, too."

Pettitte made his decision to accept Houston's heavily backloaded proposal after weighing a new offer from the Yankees on Wednesday night.

New York then went to its backup plan, and has agreed to a trade with Los Angeles that will send Kevin Brown to the Yankees for Jeff Weaver, two minor leaguers and $3 million, two baseball officials said on condition of anonymity.

Pettitte took $7.5 million less to sign with the Astros -- the Yankees' last offer was for $39 million over three years. But the Astros play near Pettitte's hometown of Deer Park, an important factor for the pitcher's wife and children.

"They really wanted me here," said Pettitte. "My heart started pulling me and tugging me to come back down here and play in front of the Astros and the Houston fans."

"We hate to lose Andy Pettitte," Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said in a statement. "We know the fans may be disappointed, but if you're counting us out next year, don't bet the house."

Later, as he left the Yankees' minor league complex in Tampa, Fla., Steinbrenner said, "It's obvious to a lot of us from the start that he wanted to go home."

"He wanted to go home to Houston. And I admire him for wanting to be with his family. He couldn't do that in New York," Steinbrenner said. "He was a great competitor for me."

Pettitte, in fact, has been working out with Clemens.

"I don't know what he's thinking, but he's been working out with me all week and he's in shape," Pettitte told Dan Patrick on ESPN Radio. "He could pitch right now. I can tell you this ... if he expressed to me at all that he wanted to play, I would be all over him."

Pettitte, 31, went 149-78 with the Yankees, who signed him in 1991. If he had stayed in New York, he would have had the chance to surpass Whitey Ford's 236 victories and become the winningest pitcher in team history.

Pettitte went 21-8 with a 4.02 ERA last season.

Derek Jeter tried to convince Pettitte to stay in the Bronx.

"He called me a few days ago and yeah, he tried to talk me into staying," Pettitte told Patrick. "That's one of the hard parts, leaving great guys like him and a lot of others."

"About a month ago when this all first began, I don't think any of us thought this was more than a pipe dream," Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker said. "I can't think of a better person that fits the description of what we are trying to do in Houston, Texas, in regard to image and character. And we all know how important pitching is to a successful baseball team."

Pettitte will get $5.5 million next season, $8.5 million in 2005 and $17.5 million in 2006, according to contract details obtained by the Associated Press.

While the Astros were aggressive in their pursuit, the Yankees were unusually passive. New York waited until the last day of its exclusive 15-day window to make an offer, and it was for $30 million over three years, including a $3 million buyout of a 2007 option.

Fantasy Focus
While Andy Pettitte's defection to the National League has major implications in the real world, it will make smaller rumblings in fantasy. Pettitte certainly won a lot of games in part because he was a Yankee; he's unlikely to win as many in Houston, though he will get nice run support. And while many would predict a jump in Pettitte's already average ERA (normally around 4), Houston's park didn't see noticably more runs scored than Yankee Stadium. Bottom line: Pettitte is likely to produce an ERA anywhere between 3.50 and 4.50, and win 15-17 games. Which is pretty much what he was doing all along in New York.
-- Eric Karabell

Boston made an early $52 million, four-year bid, one of the sources said, but Pettitte decided he couldn't pitch for the Yankees' rival.

With the Astros, he felt wanted.

"When I walked off the mound at Yankee Stadium at the end of [World Series] Game 6, I didn't think this would be a reality," Pettitte said. "I didn't know how interested the Astros would be."

He joins a team trying to rebuild and win at the same time. Houston dealt closer Billy Wagner to Philadelphia last month in a cost-cutting move. Pettitte will combine with Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt to form a powerful front three in the rotation.

And, the Astros are counting on Octavio Dotel to replace Wagner.

"Just when I thought things were turning in the wrong direction with Wags, Drayton (owner McLane) stepped up," Astros slugger Jeff Bagwell told Houston television station KRIV. "He brought a quality, quality pitcher to our team. Never in my wildest imagination did I think we really had a chance."

Said Pettitte: "All I've known in New York was winning. I wouldn't have come here if I wouldn't have felt I had a chance to win."

Sounding wistful at times, the 31-year-old left-hander said the Yankees' failure to pursue him aggressively allowed him to turn his attention to Houston, which wound up signing him for $7.5 million less than New York offered.

"When I left there after (World Series) Game 6, I never really envisioned myself in a different uniform," Pettitte said. "I thought that they would try to make a serious push to sign me then."

While Houston has had many strong teams since joining the National League for the 1962 season, the Astros have never made it to the World Series.

Pettitte won four World Series with the Yankees.

With his departure, only Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada remain from the group that led the Yankees to titles.

"It's going to be a little strange," Yankees reliever Steve Karsay said. "It's going to be sad to see him go."

Clemens sounded surprised by the Yankees' bargaining.

"This is their guy," he told Sporting News Radio. "I think if they would have come and hit him hard early, no other team would have been able to sway him away."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.