A.J. Burnett: The Evolution of a Pitcher

Ryan JohnsonContributor IApril 16, 2009

BALTIMORE - APRIL 09:  A.J. Burnett #34 of the New York Yankees pitches against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards on April 9, 2009 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

I have to admit, when I heard the Yankees signed A.J. Burnett to a $82.5 million, five-year deal, I was a bit skeptical. After having Tommy John surgery in 2003, Burnett's career has been marked by brilliance at times but, more often than not, by injuries as well.

But after only a few games in pinstripes, Burnett is turning into the ace of the Yankees staff.

So far this season, he has a 2-0 record with a 2.70 ERA. He not only leads the team in wins and strikeouts, but he has pulled the Yankees out of two-game losing streaks.

Burnett finished the 2008 season with an 18–10 record and established career highs in almost every pitching category. He won 18 games, appeared in 35 games while starting 34, pitched 221-and-one-third innings, and led the American League with 231 strikeouts. His 34 starts also led the AL.

He seems like a changed man. While still throwing 96-plus mph, Burnett is less concerned with over-powering hitters and more focused on evolving as a pitcher with control.

During his most recent outing against the defending AL Champion Tampa Bay Rays, Burnett took a no-hitter into the seventh inning, striking out at least one batter in each of the first seven innings.

On a staff with three legitimate No. 1 starters in C.C. Sabathia, Chien-Ming Wang, and Burnett, the Yankees could live up to the hype.

Sabathia always starts slow, but he will turn it around. And don't forget Andy Pettitte, who has also pitched well so far. If Joba Chamberlain can get to even the 10-15 win range, I can't see the Yankees having too many extended losing streaks.

But Burnett will remain the key acquistion for the Yankees and their long-term success.

If he stays healthy, the Yankees could have two 20-game winners. The last time this was done was in 2002 when Red Sox pitchers Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe both won 20, as did the Diamondbacks' Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson.

In a short season that has seen Nick Swisher pitching and Wang posting a 28.93 ERA, Burnett has risen to the top of the Yankee rotation.