I’ve been unable to get a good night’s sleep since the AJ Burnett deal was announced yesterday.
I feel sick even as I write this. In 2004, when the Yankees signed Carl Pavano to his 4 year $39.95 million deal, that time, outbidding the Red Sox in the process, I did a little Tiger Woods fist pump. Then the next four years I couldn’t wait to get rid of the American Idle.
Now, this deal reeks too much like Pavano’s. Even worse, they both were teammates on the Marlins from 2002-2004, so this just gives me bad vibes.
I will give Burnett some credit, he does have good stuff, but that is only when he is healthy. Healthy, Burnett is a beast, and he can really mow down opposing hitters. I’m leery right now if I should jump on the bandwagon. There’s quite a few bloggers out there who have strongly expressed their disgust, most notably Cliff Corcoran at Bronx Banter. Corcoran wrote a piece for SI.com explaining that the Yankees did not need Burnett more than they needed offense. They have 10 top prospects waiting in the minors and by signing AJ Burnett, it just tells us that the Yankees are thinking of the next three years, by then the contracts of Posada, Rivera, and possibly Jeter will expire, so they are in a “win now, worry later” mode.
This is essentially what Corcoran said on SI.com:
Rather than committing five-years and $82.5 million to Burnett (at an average annual salary of $16.5 million), the Yankees should have looked for shorter-term, more cost effective alternatives. Andy Pettitte, who may yet return on a one-year deal at a salary below the $16 million he earned last year, is one option. Former Sabathia teammate Ben Sheets, whose injury history resembles Burnetts, is would have taken a two-year, $30 million deal. Even converted reliever Braden Looper, who threw 199 innings of league average ball for the Cardinals last year and would be a perfectly acceptable, budget-rate fifth starter behind Sabathia, Wang, Chamberlain, and either Pettitte or Sheets.
Such less expensive, short-term deals would have allowed the Yankees to maintain the flexibility in their rotation that would have allowed the conga-line of starting pitching prospects in their organization to work their way up to the major leagues. Behind Chamberlain and Hughes are Ian Kennedy (24), Zach McAllister (21 and set to start 2009 in Double-A), 6-foot-8 Dellin Betances (a 21-year-old Brooklyn native set to start 2009 in High-A Tampa), 21-year-old lefty Jeremy Bleich (a 2008 draft pick out of Stanford who dominated in Hawaiian Winter Baseball and could move very quickly), 19-year-old Dominican Jairo Heredia, and assorted lesser prospects such as George Kontos (23 and set to start 2009 in Triple-A), Christian Garcia (23 and ticketed for Double-A), and the 6-foot-10 North Carolina State product Andrew Brackman (23), who is coming off Tommy John surgery.
Corcoran’s counterpart, the founder of Bronx Banter, Alex Belth, tells us to reserve judgment and hope that AJ Burnett shows stuff he is capable of.
Jay Jaffe at Baseball Prospectus has dissected the Burnett file and admits Burnett, when healthy, is one of the dominant pitchers and is in the top three in K’s per 9 innings.
Burnett’s combination of fragility and perceived squeamishness calls to mind the darkest chapter of Yankee GM Brian Cashman’s tenure, the two deals he inked at the 2004 Winter Meetings with a pair of injury-riddled pitchers coming off rare healthy, effective seasons, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright. The Yankees just cleared the former’s four-year, $39.95 million deal from the books this fall. A teammate of Burnett’s with the Marlins from 2002 through 2004, Pavano signed with the Yankees in December 2004 after a season in which he’d gone 18-8 with a 3.00 ERA in 222 1/3 innings—figures that were all career bests, but representing just the second time the pitcher had been healthy and effective over a full season. Pavano made just 19 starts in his four years in the Bronx, and his litany of injuries reached such an absurd level that his initials came to stand for “Can’t Pitch.” Wright was coming off his first healthy and effective season since 1998; he managed just 43 starts over the next three years (the last one in Baltimore) and was rarely effective. Suffice it to say that the Yankees’ recent record of banking on pitchers with sketchy track records isn’t a good one.
To be fair, Burnett is a good pitcher when healthy. Though he had never won more than 12 games prior to the 2008 season, that was a function of his lack of availability and the occasionally meager offensive support he had received, and his ERAs have been 13 percent better than the park-adjusted league average over the past four years, which ranks 16th among pitchers with at least 700 innings in that span. His 4.07 ERA this past year was inflated by about half a run thanks to his .318 BABIP, 18 points above league average.
Burnett’s strikeout rate over those four years, 8.9 per nine innings, is even better, ranking third among that group behind Cy Young winners Jake Peavy and Johan Santana. As noted in discussing Sabathia, strikeout rate is the key indicator of a pitcher’s future success because it provides the window into his ability to fool hitters with his offerings. A pitcher’s strikeout rate generally declines as he ages, but a high strikeout rate gives him more headroom before he does so. To the extent that the Yankees must look five years into the future on Burnett’s deal, his strikeout rate offers some assurance of future effectiveness-if not availability.
That much I’ll give credit to Burnett.
As Jaffe ends his article with “… that he’s not pitching for a contract, it might only be a matter of time before Burnett winds up on the trainer’s table or the disabled list, rekindling uncomfortable memories of fragile free agents past.”
That’s the lasting impression I have right now of Burnett.