Commentary

Yankees missed out on R.A. Dickey

Two years ago, Mets' star knuckleballer could have easily been with the Bombers

Updated: June 22, 2012, 1:06 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

The New York Mets knuckleballing right-hander R.A. Dickey hasn't allowed an earned run since May 22. He hasn't lost a game since April 18. When he pitches Sunday night against the Yankees and their ace, CC Sabathia, in the finale of this year's edition of the Subway Series, he will be coming off back-to-back one-hitters.

Even Yankees GM Brian Cashman is a fan. "He's been amazing," Cashman said. "He should certainly be the National League starter in the All-Star Game."

And you know what else? Two years ago, he easily could have been a Yankee.

After the 2009 season, when Dickey was being shopped on the free-agent market, the Yankees kicked the tires on the then-35-year-old journeyman -- and walked away.

"We did not pursue him in a really aggressive fashion," said Yankees assistant GM Billy Eppler. "Obviously, you kick yourself a little bit now. If there's such a thing as an outlier, he would be it."

Dickey wound up signing a minor league deal with the Mets. The Yankees traded for Javier Vazquez.

The rest is history. Vazquez bombed out in his second go-round as a Yankee. Dickey is currently 11-1 with a 2.00 ERA.

"He was not a guy we were running after," Eppler said.

In fact, neither Eppler nor Cashman can recall the last time the Yankees actively scouted, pursued or signed a starting pitcher who relies primarily on a knuckleball, for a variety of reasons.

"I don't think anybody gravitates to signing knuckleballers until they've had success for a year or so," Cashman said. "I guess because they're erratic and because there are very few who are very good for an extended period of time. But if you nail one like Dickey or [Tim] Wakefield, they can be saviors for your franchise, because obviously they can pitch on shorter rest, they never get tired and if they can control that pitch, they can be a great asset."

Currently, the Yankees don't seem to need help in their starting rotation, with Ivan Nova pitching lights-out in his most recent start, Sabathia coming off a complete-game victory over the Braves, Hiroki Kuroda seemingly having found his stride in the AL and Phil Hughes, despite his poor showing on Wednesday, pitching well for most of the season.

Then, of course, there is Andy Pettitte, who has shrugged off 18 months of inactivity as if it were an old shirt and is pitching not just as well as he had in 2010, but better.

Pettitte gets the start in the first game of the series Friday night at Citi Field, and even Cashman admits he wasn't quite sure what to expect out of the 40-year-old left-hander.

"There really were two sides of the coin," Cashman said. "Because he was so successful and he never had had a failure, you expected it. But at the same time, if after being out a year and half he couldn't do it, you couldn't be surprised. So I think you could legitimately go either way."

But Cashman's actions over the winter tell you which way he was leaning. "I offered him $11 million," he said. "So I was betting on him."

So far, the bet has paid off. Pettitte has started seven games and pitched at least six innings in every one of them. He has had five outstanding outings and two so-so starts, one of which was his first one back. And his most recent start was another gem, seven innings of two-run ball against the Nationals, an effort that was lost when the game became a 14-inning, nearly five-hours-long marathon eventually won by the Yankees.

"I think we all knew when he retired that he could still pitch at a high level," Cashman said. "So you can't really say you're surprised."

Pettitte's return came along at precisely the right time, when the Yankees' starting staff was still reeling from the loss of Michael Pineda, which for a short time forced them to rely on a tag-team of Freddy Garcia and David Phelps in the rotation.

A rotation that might also have included R.A. Dickey, a pitcher whose unconventional repertoire put off the Yankees three years ago and just might have the same effect Sunday night.

"There's a certain sexiness about watching guys like [Justin] Verlander and CC, guys who throw hard and challenge you with a fastball," Eppler said. "But at the end of the day, successful pitching is really about upsetting a hitter's timing. If you can do that, you can be successful, and that's clearly what Dickey's been able to do."

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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