Pettitte turns eyes toward home

Any day, perhaps any hour now, Andy Pettitte will file for free agency, officially delivering the Yankees to an organizational anxiety attack: Is he staying or is he going?

For the first time since 1995, the Yankees admit they're pondering -- and, indeed, planning for -- a future without Pettitte. His nearly unblemished nine-year career in the Bronx and loyalty to the Yankees could be outweighed by an even greater need to finish his career at home in Texas.

No one in the front office -- and by his own admission, not even Pettitte himself -- knows what the next two months on the open market will bring. This much, however, appears certain:

If Pettitte flees New York, it'll be to play for the Astros, who freed up nearly $9 million in salary this week by trading closer Billy Wagner to the Phillies.

Second, Pettitte's departure would force the Yankees to turn to Bartolo Colon and Kevin Millwood, both free agents. With Roger Clemens retiring and David Wells almost certain to undergo back surgery, the Yankees are relying on Mike Mussina and Jose Contreras in 2004. After that, it's Jeff Weaver and Jon Lieber, and a winter of cold sweat.

That's why Pettitte's decision is so critical to the Yankees' blueprint. Interestingly, the team is taking a quasi-passive approach to Pettitte, insisting no contract offer will be made during the 15-day negotiating window.

Reckless or bold, realistic or fatalistic, the Yankees intend to let Pettitte test his market value, even if it's with one team, the Astros. Given their financial superiority, the Bombers intend to match and will undoubtedly probably exceed any offer Pettitte gets from Houston. But club officials believe that, no matter how deftly they handle this negotiation, their chances of getting the left-hander back are only 50-50.

"It's going to be a volatile market," Cashman said. "I have to concede it's possible he won't be here."

What, exactly, will it take for Pettitte to stay? The Yankees' surest bet is to lure Roger Clemens off his couch. A friendship with the Rocket has become Pettitte's most significant bond to the Yankees, and it's hard to imagine Pettitte turning his back on any Clemens encore in 2004.

But the Yankees also admit they have no realistic hope of the Rocket changing his mind about retirement, which means they'll have to rely on a secondary recruiting pitch.

And that is, the professionalism of Joe Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. The near-guarantee that Pettitte will make it to the postseason every year he's a Yankee. And the memories of the sold-out ballpark in October, the countless standing ovations -- including the overwhelming reception after Game 6 of the World Series -- and the bond with Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera.

At one point last month, Pettitte admitted all those emotional factors might've been enough to sway him. Referring to Jeter, Williams and Rivera during the AL Division Series, Pettitte said, "we came up together, started this thing and we've talked about seeing it through. That's why I can't predict what'll happen next year. I think about what's next, but it's hard for me to imagine being anywhere else."

But as the Yankees went deeper into the postseason, Pettitte also spoke of his need to be closer to his family in the Houston area. He repeatedly said during the World Series, "this is something I need to think about, talk to my family about."

Recent events don't bode well for the Yankees. Last week, Torre spoke openly of escaping George Steinbrenner's clutches after his contract expires in 2004 -- not even asking for an extension. And Stottlemyre is still thinking about quitting outright this winter. With Pettitte's Yankee family shrinking fast, the ramifications of the Astros' salary dump were felt all the way to the Bronx.

Although Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker insisted Wager's money isn't quite Pettitte's -- "it's not like we've got $9 million to go and do something else with," he told Newsday -- the door to paying Pettitte was left open.

"For that to happen," Hunsicker told the paper, "somebody else would probably have to go."

Hunsicker could likely clear that final hurdle by trading outfielder Richard Hidalgo, who's owed $12 million coming next year and $15 million, via a team option, in 2005 (including a $2 million buyout).

If the Astros can find a taker for Hildalgo, they should have no problem affording Pettitte, even at $12 million to 15 million a year. Still, as he said one day in early October, "this isn't going to be about money."

For Pettitte, it's the worst kind of ballot -- a choice not between right and wrong, but between right and right. No wonder everyone's holding their breath.

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.