Pettitte leaves Yanks at loss

Left-handed starter opts for 3-year Astros contract closer to home in Texas

`My heart started pulling me'

In reaction, New York has reported tentative deal for Brown with Dodgers

Baseball

December 12, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The New York Yankees suffered their first major setback of the winter yesterday, when the Houston Astros reached a deal with left-handed starting pitcher Andy Pettitte on a three-year contract.

Pettitte was one of the cornerstones of the new Yankees dynasty, emerging as a star-quality starter with a 21-8 record in 1996 and concluding his Yankees career with another 21-8 performance in 2003. He won 149 games over nine seasons in New York and owns a share of the major league record for postseason victories with 13.

He agreed to what is reportedly a heavily backloaded contract worth $31.5 million to pitch near his Deer Park, Texas, home. According to unnamed sources cited by the Associated Press, the Yankees offered him a total of $7.5 million more, however, only $26 million over the first two seasons was guaranteed.

"They really wanted me here [in Houston]," said Pettitte, who will earn $5.5 million next year, $8.5 million in 2005 and $17.5 million in 2006. "My heart started pulling me and tugging me to come back down here and play in front of the Astros and the Houston fans."

The announcement left the Yankees scrambling to maintain a top-quality starting rotation.

But don't cry for them just yet. The Associated Press reported that the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers had agreed to the outline of a tentative trade that would send right-handed starter Jeff Weaver to Los Angeles for $15 million right-hander Kevin Brown. The report, based on two baseball officials who requested anonymity, said that two minor leaguers and $3 million from the Yankees also would be included.

The trade would help the perennial American League East champions, who also will head into 2004 without can't-miss Hall of Famer Roger Clemens, who apparently has retired, and are gambling that veterans David Wells and Jon Leiber can rebound successfully from career-threatening injuries.

Even in the wake of such a dramatic loss of quality pitching, the wealthy Yankees still are better situated than most of their American League competitors. They recently acquired emerging star Javier Vazquez from the Montreal Expos to join former Orioles star Mike Mussina at the top of the rotation and expect Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras to build on a decent 2003 performance.

The departure of Pettitte, however, is more good news for the rival Boston Red Sox, who recently acquired marquee starter Curt Schilling and are rumored to be considering a trade for Texas Rangers superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez.

If the Red Sox do trade outfielder Manny Ramirez for Rodriguez, they would be in position to further upgrade their rotation by dealing shortstop Nomar Garciaparra for another front-line starter - possibly Anaheim Angels left-hander Jarrod Washburn or Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Odalis Perez.

Despite budget problems, the Astros are working hard to remain a strong contender in the National League Central, where the Chicago Cubs already have built on last year's playoff run with the acquisition of power-hitting first baseman Derrek Lee.

No doubt, the arrival of Pettitte will spawn speculation the Astros will try to persuade another hometown superstar - Clemens - to delay retirement for at least one more year. Clemens and Pettitte became close friends during their five seasons together in pinstripes.

The Astros finished one game behind the Cubs in the NL Central and four games off the pace in the wild-card race. Pettitte will move to the head of a rotation that already includes promising young starters Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller.

Astros fans, however, have gotten a mixed message from the club's front office this winter. The team traded top-flight closer Billy Wagner to the Philadelphia Phillies in November in what was viewed as a major cost-cutting move.

Former National League Most Valuable Player Gary Sheffield, a free-agent outfielder from the Atlanta Braves, expressed confidence on Wednesday night that he will sign a multi-year contract with the Yankees amid rumors that the proposed four-year deal is unraveling.

If it falls through, it could have an impact on the Orioles' offseason plan, because the Yankees could be expected to heighten their interest in Expos free-agent outfielder Vladimir Guerrero.

The Associated Press and other wire services contributed to this article.

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