The Yankees signing Bartolo Colon to a Minor League contract is a low-risk, long-shot proposition. It does not indicate the beginning of the end or the approach of Judgment Day or anything in that general sector.
But it does illustrate that things have not gone the Yankees' way this winter, in terms of obtaining starting pitching. Thus, the Spring Training invitation to Colon. He has not pitched in the Majors since 2009, and he has not pitched a full season since '05, although that was also the season in which he won the American League Cy Young Award while pitching for the Angels.
Colon was a premier innings-eater in his prime, but that prime was some time ago. He'll be 38 in May, and his recent professional history has been more about shoulder and elbow problems than innings pitched. But he showed enough pitching in winter ball for the Yankees to give him a look. There is no dispute about the fact that he once could pitch very well. And the most he could cost the Yankees is $900,000, which does not require the blink of an eye from them.
But the Yankees wouldn't be looking at Colon, much less signing him, if pitching Plan A -- or Plan B or Plan C, for that matter -- had gone into effect. There is nothing all that extraordinary about any club signing a pitcher who once was good, but hasn't done much lately, as a non-roster invitee to Spring Training. But this wasn't where the Yankees figured to be with fewer than three weeks left before pitchers and catchers report.
Cliff Lee's decision to take less money and sign with the Philadelphia Phillies was the fork in the road. A development such as this cannot be foreseen, predicted or outbid. Here were the Yankees, apparently winning the bidding war with The Texas Rangers as the contract offers became longer and larger. And then suddenly, there was Lee, deciding that he would take far less than the best offer because he had really enjoyed a relatively brief stay with the Phillies in 2009.
A reasonable fallback position for the Yankees always seemed to be the return of their own veteran left-hander, Andy Pettitte. But Pettitte, 38, has leaned toward retirement, rather than a return. Recent reports of the Yankees offering him $12 million to pitch in 2011 do not seem all that inflated. The Yankees need at least one more starting pitcher, and Pettitte defines the notion of a proven commodity.
But the Yankees have not heard a willingness to return from Pettitte.
"He's decided not to play," general manager Brian Cashman said this week. "If he decides to play, I think that's the rub. The only thing is, I'm left to constantly talk about it because I have to fill a void in the rotation. The obvious area to ask about is Andy Pettitte. He has, at this stage, decided not to pitch."
The truth is that the free-agent market for starting pitching, after Lee, got thin in a hurry. Arguably, the second-best starting pitcher available was Carl Pavano. For the Yankees, that was a less than viable option given the fact that when he was in their employ, they paid him $39.75 million over four years and he produced 26 starts.
The Yankees acknowledged discussing a new contract with Pavano this winter. But all parties must have understood that Pavano was better off returning to his most recent employers, the Minnesota Twins, which he did for a two-year, $16.5 million deal. It is possible that four years of incessant injuries could have been both forgotten and forgiven, but why test the limits of human endurance?
To briefly review, the top starting pitcher on the market was not swayed by financial considerations, the second-best available starter had a stay with the Yankees that was somewhere between catastrophic and ridiculous, and New York's own picture of veteran pitching reliability to date has leaned toward retirement.
That is why in a few weeks, Colon will be getting a shot with the Yankees. There is room for a really heartwarming story in the Yankees' rotation.
CC Sabathia is a genuine ace. Phil Hughes won 18 games last year, and he has plenty of room for improvement. Then just 40 percent of the way through the rotation, the "buts" began. A.J. Burnett is coming off the worst season of his life. As it stands now, Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre would be the incumbent candidates for the fourth and fifth rotation spots. That doesn't seem particularly Yankees-like, either. In circumstances like these, chances have to be taken, even by the Yankees.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.