Commentary

Pettitte's decision reveals bigger issue

What the Yankees' brass knew in October has left the team with a hole in the rotation

Updated: February 5, 2011, 9:45 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

Four months ago, Andy Pettitte walked out of the visitors clubhouse in Arlington, Texas, after letting everyone know he probably wouldn't be back.

Now, we are 10 days away from pitchers and catchers and he still hasn't been replaced.

That is the real story today, not that Pettitte will hold a news conference on Friday morning to make official what everyone around the Yankees should have accepted back on Oct. 22.

It may seem as if the winter got a little colder and the upcoming baseball season a little bleaker for Yankees fans with the confirmation that Pettitte will, indeed, announce his retirement, but really, nothing has changed.

At the same time, everything has gotten a little more urgent, verging on desperate.

When Pettitte told them in October that he was probably going to retire, the Yankees needed a starting pitcher.

They still need one today.

How is this possible?

How is it possible for the New York Yankees, the richest, most successful franchise in the history of professional sports, with a ton of cash to spend, a huge and insatiable fan base to please, and a behemoth of a ballpark to fill on a nightly basis, to have let this problem go unattended for so long?

Did they not believe Pettitte, who has always been a man of his word?

[+] EnlargeBrian Cashman and Andy Pettitte
AP Photo/Kathy WillensBrian Cashman needs to find a solid starter to replace Andy Pettitte. And he needs to find one fast.
Were they that sure of snagging Cliff Lee?

Or did they just think that a starting pitcher would fall from the sky into their laps precisely when they needed one?

Whatever the answer to those questions is, Brian Cashman better come up with a solution, and fast, or the next time he goes down the side of a building it may be without a rope.

No matter how you spin it, the Yankees' GM hasn't had much of an offseason. So far, his biggest free-agent acquisition in terms of expenditure is Derek Jeter. That will not be nearly enough.

Rafael Soriano certainly will bolster the Yankees' bullpen and shorten their games. Until proved otherwise, Mariano Rivera will continue to be Mariano Rivera. And CC Sabathia, assuming his surgically repaired knee recovers fully, will anchor one spot in the rotation.

But what do they do on Day 2 of the season, and Days 3, 4 and 5?

Truly, the Yankees' rotation is no more of a mess today than it was on the night they were eliminated from the ALCS. And it is no less of a mess.

The official announcement of Pettitte's retirement doesn't change a thing in that respect. The only thing that is changing is the calendar, which is moving inevitably toward Opening Day.

That day, at least, is covered by Sabathia.

Behind Sabathia is Phil Hughes, who is either a stud who won 18 games last year or a 25-year-old kid who faded badly in the second half of the season.

Then comes A.J. Burnett, who is either a great candidate for comeback player of the year or an incorrigible head case destined to drive every manager, GM and pitching coach he comes in contact with absolutely nuts.

Then there is Ivan Nova, either a 23-year-old with uncommon poise and limitless potential, or a green kid with all of 42 major league innings on his résumé and a disturbing tendency to fade late in games.

Then we come to the scrap heap, which so far consists of Sergio Mitre, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, and may soon include Kevin Millwood, out of which the Yankees hope to cull one No. 5 starter.

The fact that the Yankees whiffed on Lee is not Cashman's fault. Once the Phillies entered the picture, no amount of Boss Bucks was going to lure him to the Bronx.

And after Lee, there really wasn't anyone on the free-agent market worth splurging on, unless you saw the comedic value in American Idle II, the return of Carl Pavano.

But surely something might have been done on the trade market, knowing as we all did (or should have), that Pettitte probably meant what he said.

Certainly, Cashman spoke as if he believed Pettitte, although he acted as if he, too, was holding out hope, like a fan.

Now, he pretty much has two choices:

Pay a ransom of young talent -- say Joba Chamberlain and someone previously considered untouchable, like Jesus Montero or Austin Romine or Eduardo Nuñez -- for a second-tier pitcher to plug the hole.

Or, take the chance of waiting until the trade deadline to try to pluck a quality starter from a team that has dropped out of contention, by which time the Red Sox may have run so far off with the division that Cashman will be back tending bar, only this time for the benefit of no charity other than his own.

We know who the Yankees and their fans would like to have -- a Felix Hernandez or a Chris Carpenter or a Ubaldo Jimenez or a Gio Gonzalez. And who are they likely to wind up with? A Garcia or a Colon or a Millwood.

Maybe that's the way it has to be this year, that the combination of a paper-thin free-agent market and a dearth of available starting pitchers for trade will leave the Yankees scuffling for quality pitching all season long.

And maybe what happened last year will happen again in 2011, that the Red Sox will fail to live up to the preseason hype and guys in the Yankees' clubhouse will overachieve, and everything will turn out OK.

But that doesn't change the fact that it never should have come down to this, especially when four months ago, Pettitte told the Yankees exactly what he was going to do, and the Yankees knew exactly where that would leave them.

It makes you wonder if anyone was actually listening.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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