You're forgiven the spit-take. For Yankee fans still reeling from the sudden organizational flip-flop which brought Rafael Soriano to town just after Brian Cashman declared he'd make no signing which would cost the team its top draft pick, the news that the team discussed the possibility of bringing back Carl Pavano might be too much to bear, a milepost demarcating the absurd place the game's richest team finds itself in its shortage of quality starting pitching.
If you pour yourself a stiff drink and squint — and any of the finest breakfast liquors will abet that cause, trust me — you can almost understand the attraction. With no proven major league starters on the roster besides CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett and He Who Cannot Be Returned to the Rotation, what the Yankees need at the very least is an inning eater, somebody who can take the ball every fifth day come hell or high water and keep them in the game into the sixth or seventh inning. Contrary to the reputation that earned him the nickname "American Idle" during his injury-pocked four-year stint in pinstripes, Pavano fits that description. Over the past two seasons, just 18 pitchers have piled up more innings than his 420.1 frames. Only one of those 18 — The One Who Got Away — was available on the free agent market at any point this winter.
Furthermore, Pavano's coming off his strongest season since the 2004 campaign which so endeared him to a certain segment of the Yankee brass, having gone 17-11 with a 3.75 ERA, seven complete games, and the AL's second-best walk rate last year while pitching for the Twins. The Yankees got a firsthand look at him in the Division Series, where he held their big bats in check for six innings of Game Two before faltering in the seventh. ESPN's Keith Law ranked Pavano seventh among this winter's free agents, higher than any starting pitcher save for Cliff Lee and just ahead of Jorge de la Rosa and Andy Pettitte, two pitchers who would have made much more sense wearing pinstripes in 2011, and much higher than the alternatives still on the table.
Even so, Pavano's hardly an ace. Of the 27 400-inning horses over the past two seasons, Pavano's ERA+ (96) ranks 26th, and his strikeout rate (5.7 per nine) ranks 23rd. Focusing only on 2010, his strikeout rate of 4.8 per nine was the fifth-lowest of the 92 ERA qualifiers; he succeeded thanks in large part to a .283 BABIP, 47 points lower than in 2009, when his ERA was a fat 5.10. Various ERA estimators (FIP, xFIP, DIPS, tRA, SIERA, E-I-E-I-O) all put his 2010 ERA in the 4.00-4.20 range, which is better than Burnett (4.40-4.95) or the not-so-dearly-departed Javier Vazquez (4.45-5.60), but not exactly something that instills tremendous confidence. Moving from pitcher-friendly Target Field to hitter-friendly Nu Yankee Stadium would have presented a risk even if Pavano could maintain or improve his career-best groundball/flyball ratio (1.66), for the match between his lifetime .292/.345/.455 line against lefties and the lefty-friendly confines in the Bronx would have created a hazard.
As they did in 2004, the Yankees would have paid Pavano based upon a peak performance he would have been unlikely to match. The price wasn't prohibitively awful; WFAN's Sweeney Murti reports that the Yankees offered him a one-year deal for $10 million plus incentives, which is less than they paid Vazquez last year (and look how well that reunion turned out after its first unhappy ending). It's also less than more palatable free agent options such as de la Rosa, Ted Lilly and Hiroki Kuroda received this winter in dollars, to say nothing of years. Pavano wound up with two years and $16.5 million to return to the Twins, which matches what another midpriced option of similar groundball/strikeout profile, Jake Westbrook, received to return to the Cardinals.
But for as much baseball sense as a one-and-done Pavano pursuit might make after that breakfast liquor-induced squint, such a deal would have been a Big Bowl of Wrong, an insult to Yankee fans understandably bitter about the return on the righty's four-year, $39.95 million deal from 2005-2008, not only in terms of performance (9-8 with a 5.00 ERA over just 26 starts), but in frustration level. This is a guy who made trips to the 60-day disabled list in each of his four years with the Yankees, who made just nine starts over his final three years with the team, who sat (so to speak) in spring training with "bruised buttocks" and then proceeded to miss all of 2006 with a lower back strain and elbow woes. During that lost season, he also suffered broken ribs in an auto accident, but not just any auto accident, noooooo — an auto accident where he sustained $30,000 worth of damage to his Porsche while driving with his swimsuit model girlfriend, then hid the injury from the team until the point when they planned to activate him.
It's difficult to stir class resentment among the players and fans of baseball's richest team, but the optics on that one were so bad that player representative Mike Mussina openly questioned Pavano's desire to pitch and noted that many teammates felt the same way. Even manager Joe Torre acknowledged the distance between Pavano and his teammates. During the four years in which the Yankees counted on Pavano to be a staple of their rotation, they failed to win a single playoff series, sending even sketchier commodities like Shawn Chacon and Jaret Wright to the hill in October. During his final year — when he rejoined them in late August after rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery — they snapped their run of 13 consecutive postseason appearances.
It is unfair to pin all of that on Pavano, of course; injuries happen, and the Yankee brass was quite foolish to think a player with his checkered past was worth such an outlay the first time around. Nonetheless, as dire as the Yankees' need for starting pitching might be at this point, the vision of him in pinstripes again would have been too much. Pavano will never escape being a symbol of wasteful spending and unreliability during an unhappy time in recent Yankee history, particularly when that period is juxtaposed by the team ending its championship drought in the year following his departure. No, his return would have been greeted with as much warmth and acceptance as the severed horse head of Khartoum was by Jack Woltz in The Godfather. We can all be thankful we were spared such a bloody awful sight.