A.J. Burnett - Yankee Enigma
It’s tough to blame AJ Burnett for being in the right place at the right time. The New York Yankees were coming off a 2008 season in which their starting pitching staff was in shambles, they had missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993, and the team was looking for another top of the rotation pitcher to put behind CC Sabathia. Burnett, having just completed an outstanding season with the Toronto Blue Jays, was in most experts opinions the second or third best pitcher available on the free agent market that offseason. Long considered a pitcher with one of the best arms in the league a questionable mental makeup, in 2008 it seemed like he had finally harnessed his big time talent, enjoying career highs in wins, innings pitched, and strikeouts. Equally impressive was that fact that Burnett accomplished his gaudy stats pitching in the brutal American League East, where the lineups are deep and pitch counts are worked to extremes. It has been said on numerous times that the Yankees inked him to his five year, $82.5 million dollar contract due to the fact that he owned the Yankees and Red Sox during his final season in Toronto.
While he was the #2 starter on the 2009 Yankees, a team that had the best record in baseball and went on to win the World Series, there were some initial signs that the Yanks had a bit of a head case on their hands with Burnett. During his first season in the Bronx he went through periods where he looked unhittable, and would subsequently go through similar stretches where he wouldn’t win a game for a five or six starts. He had issues with Jorge Posada’s catching, including showing up the longtime Yankee after getting taken deep by David Ortiz in Boston. Eventually Manager Joe Girardi started his trend of appeasing Burnett by installing Jose Molina as his personal catcher.
His signature Yankee moment came during the 2009 World Series, as the Yankees had lost Game 1 at home and were relying on Burnett to deliver in Game 2 against the Phillies. Like many Yankee fans I was extremely nervous with Burnett on the mound going into Game 2, as it was maddening to predict which pitcher you were going to get on that particular day. He showed up in a big way that night by exhibiting the depths of his talent on baseball’s biggest stage, using his ridiculous curveball to strike out nine Phillies and lead the Yanks to victory and get them back into the series. That performance obscured to a great extent his flameout in Game 5, when going on short rest he had the opportunity to clinch the World Series for the Yankees, only to get lit up for six runs in two innings.
With the apex Burnett’s Yankee tenure being that memorable 2009 Game 2 performance, his time in Pinstripes since then has been marked by a steady stream of bad starts and irrational decisions. Burnett’s 2010 campaign included such highlights as injuring his hand after punching a door in frustration, showing up for a start in Baltimore with black eye, finishing with a 10-15 record and an ERA over 5, and being a spectator during the Yankees ALDS series against the Twins. Given a chance to redeem his season with a start in the ALCS versus the Rangers, Burnett pitched five solid innings before imploding in the 6th, earning the loss. The 2011 season has been equally frustrating for Burnett and Yankee fans despite the hiring of acclaimed pitching coach Larry Rothschild to help straighten out his mechanics. He has been wildly inconsistent, including one stretch in which he went winless for over a month. Despite the continued pampering and support from both Girardi and Yankee GM Brian Cashman, Burnett has shown up his manager on numerous occasions on the mound and is on the brink of being pushed out of the rotation. He is at this point in the season completely unreliable.
While most pitchers with Burnett’s recent track record would have been moved to the bullpen or relegated to the scrap heap, the enormity of his contract makes him impossible to trade and provides him with extra chances to succeed, as the Yankees are desperate to feel they got something out of their investment. Additionally, there is the tease of the electric arm and wicked stuff scouts have been enamored with since Burnett came on the scene, as like other organizations that have been awed by his potential the Yankees still feel he can be a top flight pitcher for them. This seems like a pipe dream at best, as he hasn’t come close to having the career someone with his natural ability could have had. Curt Schilling has said that Burnett had the best arm in the league for a number of years, some of the best stuff he had ever seen. In spite of his potential, he has had an average career and his stats thus far (roughly ten games over .500) reflect someone who didn’t meet expectations. Whether it has been due to a lack of focus, drive, or mental strength is anyone’s guess.
Due to the uncertainty of the current Yankee pitching staff, there is still a chance we will see Burnett get the nod in October. If past performance is any indication, he will continue to be a roll of the dice every time out.