Another Jerkass, Burnett

Five PM on Friday is the start of the cocktail hour and the weekend for many. Not so for me during book season, and particularly not last week. At about 5:15, I got an email from the editor telling me that A.J. Burnett’s signing with the Yankees was imminent and asking if I could crank up the wordmobile one more time as I had for the CC Sabathia and Francisco Rodriguez signings. By the time most happy hours were over, voilĂ , another piece mirrored at BP.

As a Yankee fan, I’m not happy about the signing of Burnett to a five-year, $82.5 million deal. In addition to his lack of durability, he’s always struck me as a total jerkass; he made waves last summer by inviting the Blue Jays to trade him to the Cubs. As an anlyst, I’m none too impressed either:

Second, and of more relevance performance-wise, [CC] Sabathia has proven himself to be a durable workhorse during his eight big league seasons, reaching the level of 30 starts seven times, never throwing less than 180 1/3 innings, and making only one trip to the disabled list, that due to a groin strain in 2006. Burnett, on the other hand, has reached 30 starts just twice in 10 seasons — both times prior to entering the market as a free agent — and has topped 180 innings just three times. He’s got a long history of arm problems, one that includes Tommy John surgery in 2003 and more than four months on the DL in 2006 and 2007, the former for elbow pain caused by the breakup of scar tissue from his surgery, and the latter for a shoulder strain. Both times, he came off the DL for less than a week before returning, furthering the perception that he was unwilling to pitch through any discomfort. Burnett “has often needed reassurance that he’s healthy,” wrote BP injury analyst Will Carroll amid the pitcher’s 2006 elbow woes.

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 ’04, Pavano signed with the Yankees in December ’04 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 last season — a function of his lack of availability and the occasionally meager offensive support he had received — 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 Batting Average on Balls In Play, 18 points above league average.

Burnett’s strikeout rate over those four years, 8.89 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.

Meanwhile, Cliff Corcoran — who within an hour of hearing the news about Burnett’s signing had made two irate Bronx Banter posts, one titled “Shit Sandwich” and the other “A.J. Stands for Awful Judgment” — gave a more measured take on the move’s impact upon the Yankee organization, one that recalled our recent video segment:

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 Burnett’s, 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.

With Sabathia, Wang, and Chamberlain already in place, the Yankees would only need two of the other nine pitchers listed above to pan out as back-end starters in order to field a young, cost-controlled rotation in the wake of shorter deals to pitchers such as Pettitte, Sheets or Looper. Instead, they’ve committed a rotation spot to an aging, injury-prone Burnett for the next five years (he’ll be 36 in the final year of the deal) and are paying $82.5 million for the privilege. That’s bad business.

That said, Burnett has better stuff than Pavano, Pettitte, Looper or even Sheets, he’ll keep the ball out of the hands of the execrable Derek Jeter-Robinson Cano keystone combo, and given that he’s 6-1 with a 1.35 ERA against the Yankees over the last two years, he’s one less tough pitcher they’ll have to face. But he’ll be from the Roger Clemens/Kevin Brown/Randy Johnson school of angry Yankee pitchers who aren’t much fun to root for. And when this blows up in Brian Cashman’s face, don’t say we didn’t warn him.

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