Why I can’t hate the A.J. Burnett contract

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He’s the target of constant ire, and for good reason. In the past two years A.J. Burnett has brought Yankees fans little but frustration. During that span he has amassed a 5.20 ERA, which is the second worst mark in all of baseball*. At the same time he has earned $33 million — more than all but a handful of pitchers. The separation between compensation and performances only further ignites fans. Yet despite the tension before every Burnett start and the anger following a good portion of them, I can’t bring myself to hate the contract he signed back in 2008.

*Only John Lackey, who, coincidentally, signed with the Red Sox for the same years and dollars as Burnett a year later, has fared worse (5.26 ERA).

To be sure, the contract hurts right now. The Yankees could likely get similar production from an array of pitchers in their system, for a fraction of Burnett’s costs. That Burnett money could then go to other resources. It could even go towards a better starting pitcher. There is no denying that it’s a bad contract, on account of the production they’ve received from Burnett. Even two above-average years to finish out the contract won’t make up for 2010 and 2011.

This is the risk every team takes when they sign a player to a long-term contract. The minute Burnett put his signature on that piece of paper, it was a sunk cost for the Yankees. There is no recouping that money, except in extreme cases. The Yankees knew what they were getting into when they signed Burnett, but they did it anyway. And, considering the state of the team at the time, it was probably the right move.

The need for pitching

In 2008 the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993. That’s an admirably long streak, but it was still disappointing to see it come to an end. That year it seemed as though everything broke poorly for the Yankees. They started the year with two rookies in the rotation, and both performed horribly. They then turned to another rookie pitcher, who dazzled and then got hurt. Their most stable pitcher hurt himself running the bases during an interleague game. Even Andy Pettitte struggled down the stretch. The starting staff there produced a 4.58 ERA, 9th in the AL.

(Though, to be fair, their notoriously bad defense could have played a part. They finished 3rd in FIP and xFIP, so there’s a chance that the defense exacerbated an already rough situation.)

When the Yankees closed shop for the season, they completely lacked starters for 2009. Brian Cashman said that only two were guaranteed rotation spots: Joba Chamberlain and Chien-Ming Wang. Both, however, were coming off fairly major injuries. Wang missed the entire second half, while Chamberlain finished the year in the bullpen. So even the two penciled-in starters were far from guarantees. Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy still lingered, but after 2008 it was unlikely the Yankees wanted to hand anything to either of them.

The need for pitching, then, was great. As the free agent signing period approached, Cashman said that he intended to sign two starters. CC Sabathia was obviously the main target, and after him there was a list of quality pitchers who could slot in right behind him: Burnett, Derek Lowe, and Ben Sheets. The Yankees decided that Burnett, who had flourished in the AL East in 2008, made the best target. And so they outbid the Braves for him.

The Yankees had plenty of money coming off the books that off-season. The departures of Jason Giambi, Carl Pavano, and Bobby Abreu gave the Yankees plenty of payroll flexibility. Pitching was clearly the area of greatest need, and Cashman addressed that by adding the top two starters on the market. Thinking about it that way, it’s hard to complain.

Burnett’s ability

Remember, the biggest criticism of Burnett’s deal wasn’t about his ability. It was about his health. He had landed on the disabled list four times in 2006 and 2007, missing 116 games for the Blue Jays. Before that he had missed considerable time with the Marlins. In fact, his only two completely healthy years were 2005 and 2008, his two contract years. Worst of all, all of his injuries were either elbow or shoulder related.

Yet in terms of performance, it was hard to argue with Burnett. He had just come off a season in which he led the AL in strikeouts. This was remarkable not only because he pitched in the AL East, but because he had to face the two toughest offenses in the division. That is, it wouldn’t be quite as remarkable for a Red Sox or Yankees pitcher to accomplish this feat, because they miss one of the two powerhouse offenses. Yet Burnett handled them with aplomb in 2008.

Going back even further, Burnett was one of the league’s more effective pitchers from 2005 through 2008. His 3.78 ERA in that span ranked 18th among all MLB starters with at least 600 IP in that span, while his FIP ranked 11th. His strikeout rate, 8.88 per nine, ranked fourth in that group. Clearly, performance issues were not at the forefront. Burnett might not have quite been a top-10 pitcher when the Yankees signed him, but he easily had the most talent of any available pitcher. That he dominated AL East opponents during his time with Toronto only helped his case.

The Yankees correctly assessed Burnett’s health condition. He’s missed almost no time for them in the last three years. What they didn’t figure on was the complete erosion of the skills that had made him so successful in the first place.

Flags fly forever

It’s one of the oldest cliches in the book, but there’s a reason for that. Without A.J. Burnett, the Yankees would have had an infinitely more difficult time winning the 2009 World Series. Derek Lowe certainly wasn’t the answer. Nor was Ben Sheets. Unless Cashman pulled off a trade, Phil Hughes would have started the season in the rotation. Who, then, would have replaced Chien-Ming Wang? Where would Burnett’s reasonable production have come from?

Is there an argument that the Yankees could have won that year without Burnett? Sure. But given a few of his postseason performances, including his infamous shutdown of the Phillies in Game 2 of the World Series, it’s tough to envision them having quite the same level of success without him. Even if Burnett continues tanking, the Yankees will always have that 2009 banner flying above Yankee Stadium. That might not justify the entire contract, but it’s sure easier to swallow this way.

The Yankees had plenty of pitching needs the winter they signed Sabathia and Burnett. They went about it in typical Yankee fashion, handing out two big contracts to the two best pitchers on the market. For a year, ti worked. Burnett didn’t light the world on fire, but he provided a solid 200 innings in 2009, holding down the No. 2 spot in the rotation. That his skills have betrayed him is certainly frustrating to anyone who has watched him for the past two seasons. But looking back, it’s hard to hate that deal. It was the right move at the time, and it immediately paid off. You can ask for more, sure, but how much more?

The 40-Man Roster Chopping Block
Report: Yankees unlikely to sign Hiroyuki Nakajima
  • http://roccosphere.tumblr.com rocco

    with AJ, every 2009 world series game 2 is followed by a 2009 world series game 5 (which you didn’t mention here, so i will refresh your memory):

    2 IP, 4 H, 6 ER, 4 BB 2 SO, 1 HR

    the Yankees won in 2009 despite AJ (see game 5), not because of him.

    in the regular season, as a Yankee, AJ has routinely led been @ the top in: hitting batters, surrendering home runs, wild pitches, allowing runners to steal. he maddeningly forgets baseball fundamentals like covering 1st base. it seems his head doesn’t accompany his body to the the park. i completely disagree & i think this is easily the worst signing of Cashman’s tenure as GM & cannot wait until this contract is over.

    • Mike HC

      Disagreed that the Yanks won the 2009 WS despite of AJ. He pitched damn well in the regular season and won a WS game and lost one. He didn’t “lead us” there or dominate of anything, but he was a definite positive contributor to the team that year.

    • Sweet Dick Willie

      i think this is easily the worst signing of Cashman’s tenure

      Really? How is it worse than Pavano?

      • Mike HC

        I definitely think the Pavano signing was worse as well. And trading for Javy not once, but twice, was just absurd in my opinion. Funny that Cash also wanted to resign Pavano recently. The guy gets attached to these shitty pitchers and can’t let go.

        • Mike HC

          I’m just waiting for 3 years from now when Cash trades/signs AJ again coming off a great season for the Marlins.

      • MattG

        The Pavano signing was a bad signing, but not a Cashman bad signing. You need to separate your process from your results.

        That is largely what Joe’s article is about. The results are poor, and getting worse, but can you argue with a management that (a) properly identifies its issues, and (b) promptly fixes its issues with the best available options? I don’t think you can complain to mightily about that.

      • pat

        Because Cashman could not foresee all the injuries that plagued Pavano’s 4 years here?

        • Need Pitching

          but he could foresee AJ’s major decline in performance???

    • Steve (different one)

      Game 2, the Yankees are down 1-0 and facing 3 games on the road. Losing puts them in a 2-0 hole and heading to Philly.

      Game 5, the Yankees are up 3 games to 1 and going home for 2 games.

      AJ was absolute nails when his team badly needed a win. The contract obviously sucks, but I don’t see why we should take away that WS performance from him. It was huge. It’s ok to acknowledge that while still hating the contract.

      • Mike HC

        AJ did have an era of 7.00 in the 2009 WS. I agree with rocco that we shouldn’t really be throwing AJ parades for his overall 2009 WS performance. But his overall body of work in 2009, plus the fact that the 7.00 era basically came from only one start and he didn’t evenly distribute the crappyness over both starts, shows pretty clearly we didn’t win “despite” AJ in 2009. I thought that was too strong.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      I honestly don’t ever remember Burnett forgetting to cover first. Sabathia never does it, but Burnett always has.

      • http://roccosphere.tumblr.com rocco

        not always…
        sure i can find many more examples.

        true CC doen’t always cover 1st, but that’s different, in my opinion, as CC is more likely to get out of the inning unscathed where AJ is more likely to implode.

      • Rainbow Connection

        For Burnett I remember it being more of an occasional brain fart issue.
        For CC, it’s routine laziness.

    • Guest

      Rocco, there is a very fair shot that there is no game 5 without game 2.

      I don’t think Joe was saying that AJ has been incredibly awesome in his tenure. He was just saying that his 2009 game 2 performance was HUGE. And in my opinion, that game 2 performance came in a much higher leverage situation than the game 5 stink job.

      Down 0-1, facing three in a row on the road, and another Lee start is a tougher spot than up 3-1 with two more home games left.

      Acknowledging these facts is not the same as saying as AJ has been great. He has not. But if we are going to heap scorn when AJ’s performance is scorn-worthy, we should give him credit when credit is due.

      • Mike HC

        This way of thinking is pretty debatable. Being able to close out series is pretty damn important. And one of the lasting memories of mine in 2009 was Pettitte closing out the ALDS, ALCS, and WS.

    • Evan3457


      If they lose game 2, they go to Philly down 2-0, having to win 2 of 3 in Philly just to get it back to the Bronx, and really, facing must games in game 3 and game 4 because Lee was waiting to start game 5.

      The Yanks were up 3 games to 1 going into game 5, so putting Burnett against Lee in that one was playing with house money. The win in game two was far, far more important than the loss in game 5.

      Trying to hold them equal is silly.

  • Mike HC

    Agreed that as of now, after year 3 of the contract, that the AJ contract is not absolutely horrible. 3 years of healthy pitching, one nicely above average year and a championship. The problem is that after these next two years, in which it seems that AJ is likely to continue to pitch very poorly, and/or get hurt, then the deal will look absolutely horrible.

    Although, maybe he gets hot for one of the next two years (both years is too much too ask) and contributes to another championship. I’m rooting for this scenario.

  • Guest

    “Flags Fly Forever.” So very true. AJ’s performance in Game 2 was my number one memory from the 2009 World Series (other than winning it). The Damon dash was awesome, but they were two outs and he would have already been in scoring position, and it was still just one play.

    Down 0-1, going back to Philly for three games, and Pedro was dealing early, AJ’s performance was absolutely essential.

  • Jose M. Vazquez..

    I have been on Burnett’s corner all of this time but truly, he has to do better or the Yankees are going to have to pay him to pitch for someone else. Long term (more than four years for me) contracts can be given to only the top of the top hurlers.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

      Thankfully, it appears the Yankees have learned this. The only pitcher they’ve offered more than four years since then is Lee, who clearly fits the “top of the top hurlers” bill.

  • MattG

    This pretty much sums up my feelings three years ago. Burnett? Well, I guess he is the best starting pitcher available, but I don’t expect this will end well.

    As I remember it, I was a bit more in the Lowe camp, thinking a three year investment in Lowe would be better than five for Burnett. But it took a four year offer to sign Lowe eventually. By that time, AJ was a Yankee, and I never really thought about whether I would rather have Lowe anymore.

  • CJ

    2009 World Series. The won with him not in spite of him or because of him. Bottom line is adding CC + Tex + AJ = 2009 world championship, trip to ALCS and 97 win AL East. AJ has helped or not hurt the end result in his 3 seasons in NY.

  • Jim

    Do you think the Red Sox got the better of the Hanley for Beckett/Lowell deal because they got a World Series out of those 2?

    • CJ

      Yes. I dont think there’s any question

      • Jim

        Beckett/Lowell = 35.4 WAR
        Hanley = 31.1

        I think there is an argument there. I’ve had this debate with a few people and I’m just curious what other people think.

        • Steve (different one)

          Don’t forget the 10.9 WAR for Anibal Sanchez….

          I agree that it is debatable though. Beckett filled a need and won them a WS. Sometimes you trade present value for future value. I’m sure jake Westbrook has compiled more WAR than Justice gave the Yanks. Doesn’t make that a bad trade.

          • Jim

            I always forget about Sanchez. Great cal..

        • CJ

          That’s not why stats are used in baseball

    • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher

      I would not say “got the better,” but I think both franchises got what they wanted there. I can’t imagine the Sox pulling that one back if they had a time machine and could.

  • bill

    Not to mention that if the bats dont go on the fritz in game 5 and they go to the ALCS and possibly beyond we’re talking about how his game 4 performance on the road saved the season

  • Aaron

    Was AJ perfect in the 2009 playoffs? No. But he did a damn good job in some other games that postseason.

    Game 2 of the ALDS:


    Game 2 of the ALCS:


  • David

    Would we have been better off overall if we signed Lowe instead of AJ? (assuming the same contract Lowe signed with the Braves)

    I’m not sure what would have happened in 2009 minus AJ, but on the bright side the contract would be over after 2012.

  • Bill

    I remember not liking either AJ or Lowe and preferring lower cost short term options like Garland or Smoltz. Ultimately outside of CC I don’t think anyone turned out all that well.

    Also had we not signed Burnett there was probably a good chance we would’ve signed Lackey the following year, so I guess we can be thankful that didn’t happen.

    Still never liked the Burnett contract. I thank him for 2009 playoff contributions, but I have always hated that contract and will until its over.

  • Mister Delaware

    Cosign the entire post. Burnett’s peripherals and recent health suggested a very good to elite pitcher, he just took a nosedive.

  • Monteroisdinero

    Yanks should use AJ for a ST catcher’s drill. One low curveball after another. “Line up guys, Jesus-you’re first.”

    • Bo Knows

      Are you trying to kill the entire catching corp? Those guys will break their necks diving for those balls

  • parmesan

    I think this is totally fair and I largely agree with it; I would have just titled the piece differently. I do hate the contract, but I do not hate that the Yankees signed AJ Burnett when they did. I think it’d be almost impossible for any Yankee fan to not hate AJ’s contract at this point in time, but the reasons they signed him are more than defensible. And what AJ gave them in 2009 was, in my opinion, well worth the $16.5M. It’s just a complete and utter hindrance at this juncture.

  • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher

    People who said “This is a bad signing” when AJ first signed the contract, please raise your hand, and be honest since it’s real easy to say they should have never done it now.

    I was a HUGE fan of signing AJ at the time. I will gladly admit it.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      I actually wanted them to sign Lowe.

    • Steve (different one)

      There were a bunch of people here opposed to the signing, but almost 100% of the opposition was from a HEALTH pov. Many people thought Ben Sheets was the way to go. Some preferred Lowe. There were even a handful of people who thought the yanks should sign Ollie Perez. Being GM on the Internet is much easier than in real life….

      • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher

        I was in full-on Papa Steinbrenner mode in that I knew AJ had a tendency to go very hot-and-cold with his control, but rationalized that it wouldn’t matter a bit once he wore pinstripes.

        I don’t regret the contract in retrospect because of, yes, 2009. However, AJ finding himself while wearing another uniform is not something I’d be opposed to.

      • thenamestsam

        Yup, that was me. If you told me immediately after signing that in the first 3 years we’d get 6.2 WAR out of A.J. I would have guessed that he had some serious injury problems and made about 50 starts in those 3 years, not the 98 he has made. It’s a shame because the Yankees have the resources (both monetary and prospect wise) to replace any missed starts with something higher than replacement value so constantly injured but effective when healthy A.J. would have been such a better version to get than sucks but never hurt A.J.

    • Guns of Navarone

      I was absolutely against it, but like the post says, it was because of his injury history. Five years for a guy who couldn’t stay healthy for two seemed beyond stupid.

  • Rich in NJ

    If you believe that the Yankees can never take one step back in order to be in a position to take two steps forward in the future, then the Burnett contract is ok. I don’t believe that, so I was against giving Burnett a five year deal.

    • Steve (different one)

      They did exactly that in 2008. And probably are doing it again right now…

      But to your point, and based on the very cautious way they have operated since, I wonder how much of the 2009 binge was because of George’s failing health. I do wonder if they went all in to win one more WS before George died.

  • Nathan

    Given the circumstances, I think the Yankees gave out a semi-bad contract to AJ. Knowing his health questions, they gave out too many years.

    That said, he contributed to the ’09 WS with that three man rotation.

  • Michael

    Not to nit pick, but the author here incorrectly describes AJ’s Game 2 WS start as “infamous,” a common misuse. Webster’s defines “infamous” as 1. having a reputation of the worst kind: notoriously evil; or 2. causing or bringing infamy: disgraceful. While AJ’s great start may indeed be infamous to Philly fans, it is simply “famous” to Yankees fans.

  • David K.

    Really don’t care whether it was the right decision at that time to sign A.J. The only thing that matters now is to get rid of this guy whatever the cost.

    • Rich in NJ

      Sure, but at what cost, eating $20m to $25m? I can make a case that it makes baseball sense, but they don’t seem to be that hungry.

    • Fin

      I think AJ’s time in the rotation is comming to an end. Unless he shocks everyone and turns it around, one of the AAA guys is going to force AJ into the pen. He has provided value to the Yankees by staying healthy and taking the ball every fifth day, while there was no one clearly better to replace him. I dont think that will be the case this year. I think its reasonable to think that if he is carrying a 5+ era again, that one of the AAA guys will be seen as a clear upgrade. AS it is, he still provides innings and depth and the Yankees staff is really in no position at this point to just throw that away, by paying for him to pitch for another team.