Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nolan Ryan Makes Play For Pettitte

By Tony Mangia

Maybe the the Texas Rangers realize they won't be able to sign pitching ace Cliff Lee and want to really zing the Yankees as revenge.  Rangers president Nolan Ryan is playing this off-season like when he was on the mound---hard and fast.

Ryan might not be planning for a Lee exit but reports say he is making an attempt to lasso home-grown Texan star, Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte to ease the pain if it happens.  Cue the harmonica and start the first verse of "Home on the Range."  Nothing Pettitte likes better than being back home--in Texas.

According to sources, Pettitte called Ryan to congratulate him after the Rangers eliminated the Yankees in the ALCS---leading to Texas' first World Series appearance.  At that time, any contact with Pettitte regarding  a stint with the Rangers would be considered tampering.  Ryan waited until the Yankee lefthander became a free-agent before reaching out to him.

Pettitte hasn't declared his intentions for next season, but always expresses a desire to be near his family in Deer Park, a town outside Houston.  Pettitte spent two seasons with the Houston Astros before returning to the Yankees in 2007 to be closer to his children.  The Texas Rangers play in Arlington, only 250 miles from his family's home.

Pettitte, 38, has pitched well the past two post-seasons but is disappointed in the hard-line stance Yankee GM, Brian Cashman, took in an incentive-filled contract in 2009.  The pitcher feels he getting paid as a No. 4 starter, when in reality he is the No. 2 behind CC Sabathia.  He started last season with a 11-2 record with a 2.70 ERA but later missed a couple of months with a pulled groin. 

Pettitte has been doing his annual 'Will he or won't he retire' routine.  A couple of weeks ago, Pettitte told a Houston radio station he would play in "New York or nowhere for sure." Ryan has not denied expressing interest in the Yankee (he declined comment through a Texas spokesman), but Pettitte might be using this as leverage to get back at Cashman.  Pettitte has never showed any interest in playing for the Rangers but it looks like logical plan B.

It seems improbable that Pettitte will leave the Bronx.  He has stated many times his desire to finish career in pinstripes and has turned down offers from other teams including the Los Angeles Dodgers when Joe Torre was there.

Pettitte was paid $11.75 million last year, well below the erratic A.J. Burnett's $16.5 million.  Burnett was a complete washout and Pettitte could be the most important key to next season's success. Unless Burnett completely turns it around--which is doubtful--he looks like dead weight until his contract is up.

If the Yankees land Lee and pair him with Sabathia, they will have the best 1-2 punch in the majors.  Add that pair to Pettitte and Phil Hughes and it is the best starting rotation in baseball.

There are reportedly six teams still in the mix for Lee.  The Rangers are climbing out of bankruptcy and a $130 million contract would take almost 30% of their total budget--not advantageous considering MVP Josh Hamilton's contract is up for renewal next year.

The Yankees are clearly the front runners for Lee, but Ryan is not going to let his ace go quietly into the Texas sunset. What the Rangers can offer  family men Lee and Pettitte is the convenience of being near their homes and Ryan's reputation as  a legendary Texan has a lot of influence. He might even offer  a plan where the two pitchers could fly to their families on off days--ala Roger Clemens.

If by chance the Yankees lose Pettitte, they could be in a bad place.  There aren't many quality starters of Lee and Pettitte's caliber.  Sticky negotiations with two other members of the Core Four have already got Cashman and the Yankees crunching numbers.  Derek Jeter has been told to 'test the market' and Mariano Rivera turned 41 the other day.

Everything looked so much easier for the Yankees only a few weeks ago.  Cashman's unsentimental hard-line stance might have to soften.

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