AJ Burnett has been terrible this year. The term “$10 million arm, 10-cent head” has become quite a cliché. And to be fair to AJ, I do not really think it applies to him.
But that would only be because he has a $16.5 million arm. The 10-cent head part applies perfectly.
Last year, he had the worst year for a starting pitcher in the Yankees’ long and storied history, as he was the only Yankee starter ever to have 15 losses and an ERA greater than 5.00. This year has been more of the same. If anything, he has been worse.
He has started a disturbing trend these past two years. Each year in April, he has been very good. Combined, he has gone 7-1 with a 3.21 ERA. That might not be $16.5 million good, but you almost have to grade Yankee contracts on a curve—they ALWAYS overpay.
But outside of April, his combined ERA has been 5.63 with a record of 12-24, and infamously has exactly one win in August during his three-year Yankees tenure. For that kind of production, why not just bring Kei Igawa back up from the minors?
This is not an anomaly. None of us need to “smoke the objective pipe,” as Brian Cashman put it so bluntly last week. But what is the solution to the AJ Conundrum?
With all the talk that's been run of a six-man rotation and Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova competing for a rotation spot, people have started talking about putting him in the bullpen.
I think that this is the solution, but not necessarily in the way people might think. A lot of people look at Burnett, see his fastball and massive bender, and fantasize about what he could do if he was just pitching one inning. That is the "pie in the sky" take on the situation.
The realist remembers that Burnett walks almost four batters per nine innings—he simply puts too many men on base. And then there is the other problem: he has absolutely no idea what to do when there are those men on base.
He is virtually incapable of focusing with a man on first and will routinely have a meltdown with two outs, simply because he walked somebody.
So what happens when he walks out of the bullpen, on the road, with runners on second and third? His hair would turn gray and fall out before he even reached the mound!
No, the real solution is to bury him in the bullpen. I would suggest splitting his time as a long man with Hector Noesi, but that would not even be fair to the young kid; by every measure, Noesi has outperformed Burnett this year.
So he has to go even further down the ladder—to the last spot available: mop-up. Somebody goes AJ and gives up five in two-and-a-third? In comes AJ. No pressure—the game would already be on the way out the window.
I have heard the argument that this would screw up his head. Oh, no! Anything but that! Because if there is one pitcher who has been the picture of mental stability, it is AJ Burnett.
In all seriousness, AJ has pitched his way out of the rotation and it is now his job to earn that spot back. If he has to do that as a mop-up man, so be it. Maybe in the offseason, he can hike up a mountain, find a guru, a la Batman, and get his head on straight. Or, more realistically, lock himself in a barn with pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
But he is not pitching to a major league standard right now—and that is an objective statement of fact. It does not really hurt the Yankees to keep him in—they are a lock for the playoffs—but it is not really helping, either, and I would be shocked (and frankly appalled) if he got a playoff start.
Hopefully, Girardi and the rest of Yankees management can see the wise choice here and not just soft-pedal for the sake of AJ’s feelings.