As it had been widely projected for the past 10 days, the Yankees have dealt veteran right-handed pitcher, A.J. Burnett to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for a pair of minor league prospects. In addition, the Yankees also sent $20 million in cash to Pittsburgh to pay for Burnett’s contract. Although both teams came to an agreement on Friday, the deal was made complete on Sunday when Burnett passed a physical as he reported to the Pirates’ spring training facilities in Bradenton, FL. The transaction places a cap on the A.J. Burnett era with the Yankees, which saw its share of highs and lows.
But was Burnett’s deal, a 5-year, $82.5 million contract signed in December of 2008, worth it? Burnett’s contract was inflated due to his incredible success in 2008. Pitching for the mediocre Blue Jays, Burnett joined teammate Roy Halladay in creating one of the best 1-2 pitching combinations in baseball that season. Burnett went 18 won a career high 18 games that year, and went 5-1 with an ERA of around 2 against the Yankees and Red Sox. Eager to bolster their own pitching, and to hinder the Red Sox rotation, the Yankees offered Burnett a massive contract. The Yankees free agent class that year also included CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, making it the most star-studded free agency collection in recent history.
The mark on Burnett had always been that he was a pitcher with great stuff, but not the most sane. He would lose focus if the smallest of things were called against him, such as an umpire’s call. He would frequently lose command of the strike zone, and walk a lot of batters. Early in his career, he threw a no-hitter, but walked nine batters. Burnett led the league in wild pitches in 2002 with 14, and approached that number two other times in his career. But the common thought was that he had finally matured under Halladay’s mentoring in Tornoto.
Appropriately, Burnett’s tenure started out shaky. In his first month in pinstripes, Burnett shut down the defending American League Champions, Tampa Bay, by tossing a no-hitter into the 7th inning. Two starts later, Burnett failed to hold a 6-0 lead at Fenway Park in his first start against the Boston Red Sox. He won five out of six starts from late June until the end of July, and then did not record a win for the entire month of August. Overall, Burnett finished 13-10 in his first season in New York.
His greatest moments as a Yankee came in the 2009 playoffs, when he helped pitch the Yankees to their first World Series championship in nine years. In Game 2 of the ALDS and ALCS, Burnett gave up 3 runs and six hits in 12 innings of work, and even though he did not get a decision, the Yankees won both games in extra innings. His most pressure-packed start came in Game 2 of the World Series, where the Yankees trailed the Phillies 0-1 in the best of seven set. Burnett shut down the Phillies offense, limiting them to a lonely first inning run and four hits over seven innings of work. A week later, the Yankees were celebrating their 27th World Championship.
But even the 2009 postseason was not without its issues. Burnett was the starting pitcher in Game 5 of both the ALCS and the World Series, and had the chance to clinch each series. In both starts, the Yankees lost, in large part due to Burnett giving up 6 runs in each game, and not making it out of the 3rd inning in Philadelphia.
However, Burnett’s next two seasons would not go as well as his rocky 2009. Burnett started out the 2010 season by going 6-2, and then promptly dropped his next five starts, going an average of 4 2/3 innings in each start, and giving up at least six runs in all but one of those starts. In the final two months of the season, with the Yankees in a heated AL East race with the Red Sox and Rays, Burnett went 1-7, finishing the season with a 10-13 record. With issues surrounding the back of their rotation in the 2010 playoffs, Burnett got the call to start Game 4 of the ALCS against the Rangers, with the Yankees trailing two games to one. With the Yankees an out away from getting to the seventh inning and their bullpen, Burnett surrendered a three run home run to Bengie Molina. With the way the series had been going, Texas effectively won the series on that pitch. The Yankees would not come back in Game 4 or in the series, which they lost in six games.
The story was the same in 2011. More Burnett inconsistencies. This time, however, there was some added drama. Again, Burnett started the season strong, going 4-1 in April. Again, the middle of the season was where Burnett struggled, not recording a win from the end of June until the middle of August. The Yankees led the White Sox 13-1 after three innings on August 3rd, but Burnett surrendered five runs in the fourth and put ducks on the pond in the fifth, forcing Joe Girardi to go to the bullpen to protect his once unassailable lead. Two starts later, with Burnett struggling to find any command of the strike zone in Minnesota, Girardi took him out in the second inning with Burnett having given up seven runs. As Burnett was removed, it looked as if Burnett was angry with Girardi’s decision to remove him, as he appeared to be shouting at his manager before angrily went going the clubhouse. Both gentlemen denied that there was any disagreement, and that Burnett was simply angry with his own performance, not Girardi’s decision. However, there was a palpable tension in the post-game press conference when both men were asked about the situation.
All in all, Burnett went 11-11 in 2011. Burnett’s inconsistencies and the emergence of Ivan Nova as the team’s second best pitcher led Girardi to tweak his rotation, sending six pitchers to the rotation. While this had little impact on the team, which easily locked up the American League East Division and the best record in the League, it affected CC Sabathia’s rhythm, who never was the same pitcher after (and probably because of) the switch to a six man rotation.
The Ballad of Burnett had one last plot twist to it. The Yankees lost two out of the first three games to the Tigers in the ALDS. With their backs up against the wall, the Yankees had no one to give the ball to in Game 4 except for A.J. Burnett. There may not have been a more nervous Yankee fan base since a late October night back in 2004. Very few expected the Yankees to win the game, or expect Burnett to even pitch a decent game. Expectedly, Burnett loaded the bases in the first inning, sending the anxious Comerica Park crowd to its feet. Don Kelly ripped a pitch to dead center field, the kind of hit that all pitchers and center fielders dread – the rocketing line drive. But Curtis Granderson saved Burnett and the Yankees season with a spectacular leaping grab to keep Detroit off the board. Burnett made only one mistake the rest of the night, and it was a solo home run to Victor Martinez to cut an early Yankee lead in half. After five and two-thirds of an inning, Girardi was pleased with Burnett’s work, and didn’t ask anything else from his fragile starter. The Yankees would make the game a blowout late, and force a fifth game in the Bronx.
That was the last time Burnett would see the mound, as the Yankees lost the series to Detroit in five games. Speculation of what would become of Burnett started as soon as the season ended, and was more or less answered in January when the Yankees signed Hiroki Kuroda and traded for Michael Pineda. And finally, it is officially over now. Three years, one World Series title and a whole lot of inconsistency. Certainly, it was not as much of a disaster as the Carl Pavano or Jaret Wright signing. But the fact that Burnett is out and that the Yankees will eat the remaining $20 million on his contract mean that Burnett’s tenure in New York was mediocre, at best. They did win one championship, and he was a big part of that championship. I suppose when you compare that aspect of it, it was more of a success than, for example, Mike Mussina’s tenure, which saw no championships over eight seasons. But when the Yankees could have used a great second starting pitcher in their two most recent playoff runs, Burnett did not prove himself worthy of that responsibility with his regular season performances. Because he was so streaky in the regular season, both the fan’s and A.J.’s own confidence in himself were non-existent when it came time for the playoffs. Sadly, that, more than the 2009 championship, will be the legacy of A.J. Burnett.
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