Friday, February 4, 2011

Pettitte Officially Gone. Core Four Whittled Down to the 'Key Three'

And then there were three.  Andy Pettitte, one of the four cornerstones of the New York Yankees championship teams over the past 15 years has finally made his retirement official.  This morning, at Yankee Stadium the popular lefthanded pitcher said he was through as a player.  The Core Four is now the Key Three.

Pettitte's exit leaves Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada as the only remaining members of the Core Four and a gaping hole in the starting rotation.

The press conference was a sad moment for Yankees players and their fans but Pettitte didn't turn it into a funeral march.  Pettitte smiled--suspiciously more than usual--and looked happy to know he was leaving on his terms and would be spending more time with his family at his home in Texas.

The pull of a more stable home life nagged at Pettitte for years.  Today he made it clear this wasn't any kind of Brett Favre or Roger Clemens "retirement.  "It's not a one day decision," he stated.  He said he knew his playing days were over "weeks ago."

All the rumors of Pettitte working out in Texas, cancelling autograph shows to meet with Yankee management and possibly wanting to pad his stats for a better shot at Cooperstown were just that--greatly exaggerated hearsay.

The Yankees GM, Brian Cashman, started murmurings weeks ago that he thought there was little chance of the 240 career game winner returning for a final year.  Pettitte even said "Don't count on me' right after the 2010 season, but the "will he or won't he" drama continued throughout the winter. 

Cashman might have played a small part in Pettitte's decision.  The GM went all out for Cliff Lee and left Pettitte dangling but, after Lee went to the Phillies, Pettitte became an important factor again.  It was too late.  Pettitte had already made up his mind and was taking his famous game-face stare with him.  The soul searching was over.

Now the Yankees worst case scenario is reality and there are major holes to fill.  The team goes into spring training relying on the arms of CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and basket case A.J. Burnett.  Call it Two and a Half Starters.  Even a blitzed Charlie Sheen might fare better than the burnt-out Burnett.

Filling out the starting five rotation is a pile of bargain basement signees and a couple of young untested hurlers.  Even Hughes value is questionable.  In his first full season as a starter, Hughes was cradled by manager Joe Girardi, and was limited to a certain amount of innings.  Who knows if he can hold up to the rigors of a full season?

Recycled players like Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia now loom large in the Yankees' plans along with Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre.  The scary part is that probably the success of the rotation lies in the inconsistent arm of No. 3 starter A.J. Burnett.

Burnett, who throws a cream pie better than a baseball, is being restored by pitching coach Larry Rothschild.  If Rothschild can figure a way to get into A.J.'s head, tighten a few screws and get his fastball up to par, there is hope.  Throw in either one of the kids having a breakout year or one of the former All-stars--Colon and Garcia--coming back from the dead, there is a playoff season.

Babying pitchers, counting pitches and holding back younger arms will not be apart of this year's Yankees philosophy.  It will be put up or shut up. 

Pettitte's retirement is only the beginning of the dismantling of the Core Four era.  One by one, it could be a steady parade of the four potential Hall of Famers out of the Bronx.

Posada's contract is up after this year and he has been demoted to regular DH action.  Rivera just signed for two more years, and it's conceivable that the still reliable closer might call it a career after that.  Jeter will begin his march to the Hall of Fame in three years. In four years, the Core Four will be no more.

Pettitte's legacy, besides the huge numbers (240 career wins, 19 postseason wins, 3.88 ERA, 5 rings) is his clutch play and work ethic.  No pitcher was more reliable and there never seemed to be a situation Pettitte couldn't handle.  He has more post-season wins than any other pitcher.  Think back to Game 5 of the 1996 World Series when he beat the Braves 1-0.  It was a typical  Pettitte outing-- businesslike and efficient.  It started the current Yankee mystique.  Big-game pitcher doesn't begin to describe him.

The only blotches on Pettitte's Yankee resume are his three years with the Houston Astros and being mentioned in the Mitchell Report, where he admitted he used human growth hormone.

Pettitte made his decision to retire and the Yankees, wisely, didn't try to convince him to stay.  The man leaves a big chapter in Yankee lore.  Arguably the second best pitcher in the Yankees' modern era behind Whitey Ford.

  The Yankees were desperate for Pettitte's services this season.  He could have asked for George Steinbrenner's Monument Park plaque and gotten it.  He could have added ring number six.  Andy Pettitte knew what his heart wanted and he appeased it.

Too bad the next time we see him will probably be at Roger Clemens' federal perjury trial in July.  Then, it's the road to Cooperstown.

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