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Pettitte future may depend on Lee

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Bob Klapisch

Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.

The Yankee hierarchy has been trickling in to the winter meetings since Sunday afternoon, unified in their quest to sign Cliff Lee before the week is over.

Everyone looks and sounds confident, but bubbling beneath the surface is an unmistakable anxiety: Yankee officials are getting disturbing intelligence reports that Lee might just stay with the Rangers, after all.

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The mere possibility they could lose out on the game’s top lefthander will send the Yankees back to the ATM. Just as they did with CC Sabathia two years ago, the Bombers are prepared to raise their offer, not once but twice, even — or as one industry source said, the Yankees will “make it impossible” for Lee to say no.

Until Lee’s status is resolved, however, Andy Pettitte’s future becomes even more critical. The Yankees are anticipating he’ll make a decision about 2011 in the next week or so, although they’re getting third-hand news that’s just as unsettling as Lee picking Texas.

A friend of Pettitte’s recently told a member of the front office that the veteran lefthander is indeed retiring.

“That’s what we’re hearing, we’re just hoping it’s not true,” said the Yankee insider.

One scenario is that Pettitte has finally given in to his family’s demands that he stay home and watch his kids grow up. Another explanation is that the accumulation of injuries have finally taken their toll on Pettitte, who’s decided he’s just too beat up to continue pitching.

The third way to understand Pettitte’s mindset is to remember he’s represented by Randy and Alan Hendricks, two of the most savvy and market-aware agents in the business. Surely they know Pettitte’s worth to the Yankees is indirectly tied to Lee: if the Rangers win the bidding war, Pettitte is in a position to ratchet up his asking price from last year’s $11.75 million.

Pettitte, after all, is coming off a highly successful 2010 season, during which he was 11-3 with a 3.28 ERA, his lowest as a Yankee since 2002. His 1.27 WHIP was his best since 1997, and had he not suffered a groin injury that cost him almost two months on the DL, Pettitte might’ve finished with 20 wins.

No wonder the Yankees are sweating: if they lose both Lee and Pettitte, they’ll likely scramble for Zack Greinke.

Plan B also means rehabilitating A.J. Burnett, whose decline in 2010 warranted a face-to-face meeting last month with Brian Cashman. The GM took the unusual step of flying to Arkansas to emphasize the club’s need for him in 2011.

The Yankees were hoping to tuck Burnett at the back end of the rotation next year in what could — and still might be — a dream alignment. Lee would take the ball on Opening Day, followed by CC Sabathia, Pettitte and Phil Hughes. Burnett, relieved of the burden of the No. 3 spot, would resurrect his career under the guidance on new pitching coach Larry Rothschild.

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But there’s a wide gulf between the Yankees’ pipe dream and the situation as it’s evolving this week. Lee is believed to be holding out for a sixth year, having told Yahoo! Sports’ Tim Brown that he would remain with Texas if they guarantee his contract through 2016.

The Yankees won’t have any choice but to go to a sixth year, too, at which point they’ll have to hope Pettitte picks up on the franchise’s momentum and jumps on board.

The club has two factors working in their favor as Pettitte makes his choice: the first is that he has an excellent relationship with manager Joe Girardi and is otherwise completely comfortable in the Yankees’ clubhouse.

Indeed, the person who warned the team that Pettitte might retire said, according to the official, “in terms of pitching and on the field stuff, Andy has never been happier.”

The second factor that’s keeping the Yankees from losing hope is that Pettitte’s dance with retirement is nothing new. He always returns home after the season beat up, mentally and physically, telling family and friends he’s reached his limit.

That initial phase usually lasts about a month, or as least through the Thanksgiving holiday. Then, as November gives way to December, Pettitte’s competitive gene starts to re-awaken — he finds himself missing not just the Yankees but the game in general.

It’s right about now that Pettitte historically decides to give his career one more year. The Bombers still believe he’ll do likewise very shortly, although no one has any illusion that this process will go on indefinitely.

If Pettitte does pitch again in 2011, it’ll certainly be for the last time. The Yankees will worry about the 2012 void next offseason.

In the meantime, they’re bracing for a critical week of decisions from two pitchers they probably can’t live without.

Tagged: Yankees, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett

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