Pettitte, Yankees make a gamble

Here we have baseball irony at its best: In 2011, when the Yankees needed Andy Pettitte to rescue them after whiffing on Cliff Lee, he retired. In 2012, with the Yankees in possession of a much more capable starting five, he’s coming back.

Really, though, did you expect Brian Cashman to say no?

On one hand: No team — not the Phillies, not the Giants, not the local slowpitch All-Stars — can turn away a credible arm. Pettitte, last we saw, has one of those. He went 11-3 with a 3.28 ERA in 129 innings during the 2010 regular season. He was good enough that the Yankees badly wanted him to return.

On the other: Don’t you get the sense this exercise may be better in theory than practice?

Sure, there’s the best-case scenario: Pettitte starts Game 7 of an epic World Series and hands the ball to Mariano Rivera for the last three outs. The close friends announce their retirements (for real this time) at a champagne-soaked news conference, just after Derek Jeter collects Series MVP honors.

If that sounds farfetched, it shouldn’t. The Yankees are good enough to write the storybook ending.

But since this is New York — with the attendant egos and media scrutiny — there’s at least as much of a probability that Pettitte’s endeavor will be, shall we say, counterproductive.

Pettitte isn’t the future of the Yankees’ rotation, just as Rivera is no longer the long-term closer, nor is Jeter a player to build around. The Core Four — if we include the now-retired Jorge Posada — is entering its baseball dotage. The roster is churning. Cashman, through his emphasis on young players, seems to understand this.

Pettitte has been a low-maintenance superstar throughout his career. He won’t change now. The worry, though, is that Pettitte’s presence might affect the young starters who may fret that their jobs are in jeopardy.

Let’s say Pettitte is ready to pitch by mid-May. How nervous might Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda and Phil Hughes be right around then?

Coming home for a heartfelt goodbye sounds like a great idea. But Ken Griffey Jr. and Tom Glavine might tell you it’s best to let the first draft of one’s legacy stand as the final version.

It’s not as if Pettitte needs to look far for a cautionary tale: Posada’s farewell season of 2011 wasn’t a happy memory for all involved, because of manager Joe Girardi’s growing belief that there were younger, better options at designated hitter. Posada, a proud player, naturally disagreed. Public disagreements followed.

Posada didn’t hurt the Yankees last year. In fact, he batted .429 against the Tigers in the American League Division Series. But the story of his season, on and off the field, underscored the difficultly in shepherding a franchise icon into retirement without bruising his psyche.

Pettitte managed to get it right the first time, walking away after two quality starts in the 2010 postseason. Just before retiring, the ol’ lefty burnished his image as the most reliable October starter of his generation.

It’s a nice legacy — quite perfect the way it is. Now he’s taking it out of the display case. He must be careful not to drop it.