Feb
13

An elegy for Allan James

By

In 1999, before the Internet played a major role in driving baseball rumors, the Yanks sent David Wells packing on on the eve of Spring Training. In 2004, before Twitter created a world filled with anonymous sources driving our thirst for constant updates, Alex Rodriguez landed in Brian Cashman‘s lap. This year, it seems, A.J. Burnett will be the high-profile player dealt on the eve of Spring Training.

The Yankees haven’t yet wrapped up their A.J. maneuverings. According to Marc Carig’s latest, the main sticking point concerns the amount of money the Pirates will send back to New York. While many seem to think a deal will get done before pitchers and catchers report, the Yankees are not against bringing Burnett to Tampa with them. I have a feeling a trade will be consummated, but it’s a process.

We’ll get to the analysis of how a potential Burnett trade impacts the Yanks’ pitching situation in the morning. Tonight, though, I come with some musings on A.J. For a player who landed in the Yanks’ lap, albeit for the tidy sum of $82.5 million over five years, Burnett’s tenure has been anything but steady for the Yanks.

When the Yanks signed Burnett, the biggest questions surrounding the right-hander concerned his health. Prior to joining the Yanks, Burnett had made 30 or more starts in a Big League season just twice in his career, but he seemed to have found health in his years in Toronto. With the Blue Jays, he flashed the strike outs with a K/9 of 9.0 and kept his walk rate at a manageable 3.3 per 9 innings. He beat the Yanks, and he beat the Red Sox. As long as he stayed healthy, nearly everyone figured he would be just fine on the Yanks.

The health, of course, hasn’t been an issue. Burnett has made 98 starts for the Yankees, and he has lead the league in walks once, wild pitches twice and hit batters once. I saw Burnett throw Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS at Yankee Stadium, and for him that year, it was a typical game. He held the Twins to a run on three hits over six innings but walked five. He threw some clunkers in the ALCS, tossed a gem of a game in Game 2 of the World Series and was shelled in Game 5, not even escaping the third inning.

The next year in the ALCS, he folded against the Rangers. In his one playoff appearance that year, in a pivotal Game 4, he could not get past Bengie Molina. I was watching the game in a bar in California and basically started cursing the TV when Molina launched that home run. Burnett just turned in disgust.

For A.J., though, it was never a matter of accepting failure. In 2011, his struggles became a weekly story as he would grow visibly frustrated on the mound. I was in Minnesota for the infamous game this past August when the TV cameras caught him cursing at, well, someone before he stormed off into the clubhouse. Both Joe Girardi and Burnett denied an altercation had happened, and I had the chance to hear Burnett speak in the locker room. He truly wanted to pitch better, to be better than he had been. As much as it pained me to watch him throw every five days, I felt bad for the guy.

It is now looking likely that Burnett’s last pinstriped hurrah will be Game 4 of the 2011 ALDS. With rain impacting their pitching plans and Burnett’s riding a successful September, which included his first win as a Yankee at Fenway Park in three seasons, Girardi handed the ball to A.J., and he delivered only as A.J. could. With the bullpen active from the first inning and he defense supporting him, he lasted through 5.2 innings while giving up only one run on four hits and four walks. For a minute at least, we held our breaths and believed in A.J.

If A.J. has thrown his final pitch for the Yanks, I can’t say I’ll miss him. He was the age-old enigma wrapped in a mystery in which the cliched sayings held true. He once had electric stuff, but he’s now 35. His fastball has faded, and he never could control his breaking pitches. He’s also due $33 million over the next two years. Maybe he’ll still be here in a week, but I wouldn’t bet on it. And for the Yankees, that’s not bad news at all.

Categories : Musings

37 Comments»

  1. Sarah says:

    Great piece, Ben. So frustrating, and yet there was always this undercurrent of pity. I will miss him, just a teeny bit. But probably it won’t last and by May I’d be all “AJ who?”

  2. Matt DiBari says:

    Not wanting him on the team doesn’t necessarily mean I hate him.

    I kind of liken him to a Kevin Brown 2005. Brown’s body gave up on him and he had absolutely nothing left, but he still dragged himself out there as often as he could (and truthfully, probably more often then he should have) and tried.

    Burnett has stunk it up for two years, but there’s never been any reason to doubt his effort. And you can respect that and even feel bad for them without wanting them to ever pitch for your team again. There is something kind of sad about watching someone’s skills erode on a national stage and its easy to feel sympathy.

    And neither one of them missed time with a bruised ass. That’s a plus.

    • ColoYank says:

      Not a bad comparison, Matt. The one place where they were very different was off the field, though. I never heard anyone say anything nice about Kevin Brown, except to compliment his sinking fastball. By all accounts A.J. Burnett is a helluva guy and a helluva teammate. I thought the piece was excellent, too, Ben.

      • David says:

        Right. And any comparison with Kevin Brown has to include the fact that he missed time because he broke his finger punching a wall.

  3. kevin w. says:

    As much as he failed while in pinstripes, I don’t feel he was ever the reason for us not winning anything. He came up in the two biggest spots we needed him most. Game 2 of the World Series and Game 4 of the ALDS were huge games for us. I never felt he was the main reason we didn’t win any series.

    • Matt DiBari says:

      I think game four of the ALCS was the most important game of the series and maybe the top (single game) reason we lost.

    • 1stbase says:

      how about game 5 of the 09 alcs, or game 5 of the 09 series, also don’t forget about game 4 of the 2010 alcs

      • Steve (different one) says:

        You’re absolutely right, he was the reason they lost the 09 ALCS and WS. Oh wait.

        Also, Phil Hughes was more to blame in 2010 ALCS. And it’s not like CC pitched well either, he just happened to get the run support.

        • 1stbase says:

          Yes because i said they lost those series, forget the fact he crapped the bed in two potential clinching games in those series in a awful way

          • Steve (different one) says:

            Why don’t you read the post you were responding to?

            • kevin w. says:

              I wrote a reply yesterday, but apparently it didn’t post. Like Steve said, we didn’t lose either the ALCS or World Series in 2009, so your point there is irrelevant seeing as I said he wasn’t the reason we LOST any series’. Either way, the ALCS he kept us in the game as we clawed back after the first few horrible innings and nobody felt confident against Cliff Lee in game 5 of the World Series. The argument for the 2010 ALCS is a valid one i’ll admit, however. Though I believe Hughes is way more responsible for the loss of that series than AJ. Burnett had one horrible game, if Hughes keeps us in ONE of those games we go to Game 7 against anyone besides Cliff Lee.

          • gc says:

            The only real absolute balls-out terrible “stinker” he threw in the 2009 post-season was game 5 of the World Series. Fortunately, the Yankees had some wriggle room, and that was the last time he was going to pitch anyway, barring some crazy circumstances in a possible game 7 like extra innings or something.

            2009 ALCS vs Angels, game 5 – AJ gave up 4 runs in the first inning, then shut the Angles down completely until the 7th, by which time the Yanks had reclaimed the lead. He gave up a hit and a walk to lead off the seventh and was taken out of the game with a 2 run lead. A bunt and a groundout produced a run off of Marte. Then Phil Hughes came in, gave up a walk and two singles, two runs scored and the Yanks were behind again. They wound up losing the game.

            It’s easy to look back and say Burnett dug himself a whole in that game, and that’s true. But he also held the Angles down after that, kept the game manageable and within reach, and gave the Yankees time to come back, which they did to take the lead. Putting two runners on base didn’t help to start the 7th, but Marte came in and got two outs giving up only one run. Still in good shape. Hughes came in and needed only one out, he imploded, and that was that. AJ, it seems to me, did far more good in that game than the other way around. He is not without fault in the game, but to lay it entirely at his feet or just call his start “a clunker” would be unfair to say the least. The three man rotation that post-season was one of the main reasons the team won, and all three pitchers contributed to that.

            • Steve (different one) says:

              This is a good point, because no one has mentioned that AJ was pitching on short rest in game 5 of the WS, right? That fact has been lost to history it seems….

  4. Carl says:

    I’ve given my share of ripping the guy on Twitter in the past, but looking back now I give A.J. credit for taking responsibility for the bad starts he had, while in front of the reporters in the clubhouse, with Cash and Girardi constantly having his back. It’s really sad how he just couldn’t live up to contract Cash gave him, despite how much he wanted to pitch better for this team. And after those two well-pitched games against the Sox on the last day of the ’11 home season and in ALDS Game 4, I think it’s good for him that he could leave on a high note.

  5. RetroRob says:

    Flash forward seven months, to a late September game.

    Headline: AJ Burnett wins his 20th for the NY Yankees; team celebrates spring trade that never happened.

    Okay, I’m pretty sure that’s not happening, even in the wildest edition of You Can’t Predict Baseball. Perhaps somewhere in a bizarro Yankee universe, one I don’t want to visit since a winning AJ on the Yankees would also mean a losing Yankees team.

    Yet AJ’s career has been bizarre. A man who previously was a good pitcher, much better than his won-loss record, but one who couldn’t stay healthy. From 2001 through 2009, in any season he pitched at least 120 innings, he produced ERA+’s of 105, 122, 112, 116, 115, 119, 104 and 114. ERA+ is flawed, but good for a quick league comparison, yet its flaw is illustrated by AJ’s lowest number in 2008 when it came in at 104. He pitched much better than that in 2008, his last year in Toronto, producing a 5.5 fWAR. The Yankees did have a valid reason for signing him. He finally had seemed to put together his health and his talent. Sadly, the intersection of talent and health would only last for one more season.

    The 2009 AJ was on the transition point. His velocity was starting to dip just slightly, so the Yankees got a season of not-quite peak AJ, but close, giving them a 3.5 fWAR. Sure, he could still be frustrating, and there was always the belief he could be something more, yet he was good, he was a key member of a world championship team, and we’d all have been happy if AJ 2009 showed up in 2010 and 2011.

    Yankees paid a lot for AJ, but in the end he’ll have been a player who came here for three seasons, helped deliver one World Series title, and served up a heaping of pie. That’s actually more of a positive legacy than many Yankees can point to.

    • Ed says:

      I’ve always considered AJ’s 2008 to be a great example of the flaws in using FIP and fWAR to judge value. That year AJ took the good/bad AJ act to the extreme. He had a lot of great starts that year, but he was horrible about 1/3 of the time. Getting a lot of strikeouts is great, but it only goes so far if the rest of the batters are hitting you hard.

  6. Brandon W says:

    I have an irrational like of AJ. I look forward to days he pitches (though during his two month winless stretch, not so much). The ability for him to pick up the ball on a given day and be absolutely shut-down dominant is a thrill. I also often feel compelled to defend him because it seems no other Yankee fans I know will.

    Sure, I’m as frustrated as anyone when he melts down, but I also think the Yankee fan base tries to create mental issues when they don’t necessarily exist. He’s aging, his stuff is fading, and he’s having trouble getting by on two less-dominant pitches that he can’t control well. Those aren’t the signs of a mentally unstable pitcher, they’re the signs of a human.

    If AJ is done in pinstripes then I tip my hat to him and thank him for putting his heart into doing what he could. If he somehow stays, I look forward to a few high-strikeout gems this year.

  7. Kiko Jones says:

    As I said on another thread, while I understand the frustration, the truth is we Yankee fans revere folks who have done way less for the team than AJ, so I will always be grateful to have witnessed his awesome games in pinstripes, especially Game 2 of the ’09 WS and tip my cap to him for his help in getting to no. 27.

  8. Rich in NJ says:

    The success of the AJ trade will turn on how wisely they spend the money saved, iow, not Ibanez.

  9. Jesse says:

    I’m sick and tired of waiting around for this guy to completely harness his stuff and become a consistent pitcher. He’s been pretty brutal the last two years, we can all agree to that. I just hope the Pirates pay $13M or whatever it is, plus getting two “blah” prospects in return for him, then, he’ll be their headache and not ours.

  10. Dan in Atlanta says:

    Girl, don’t go away mad, just go away (and free up some salary space on your way out).

  11. I’m with you 100%, Ben. I can’t say I *hate* A.J. Burnett the same way I hate Carl Pavano or Jaret Wright because Burnett actually went out there and pitched. He was extremely ineffective but he had his moments and ultimately helped the Yankees win a Championship, something fans won’t forget (hopefully).

    If he is traded, I won’t miss him because he was so damn ineffective the past two seasons…but I’ll never hate his guts.

    • Cris Pengiucci says:

      While I won’t miss him, Iappreciate the effort he gave, even if the results were not what was expected. I have a feeling he’ll bounce back this season, most likely with Pittsburgh. I really feel he started to figure something out torwards the end of the season. If he stays with the Yankees (unlikely, it seems), I think he’ll be OK, but still probably no better than what Garcia can put up. With Pittsburgh, he should put up fine numbers, which won’t look great on the surface due to the Bucs not having the kind of offense the Yankees have. Then he’ll crash and burn in the last year of his contract.

      So, guess I’m glad he’s on his way out. Clearly a frustrating player to have on your team, but not an unlikeable character.

  12. Mike c says:

    Thanks for jinxing it ben

  13. SuperEd says:

    I think it has been equally as frustrating watching hughes start games. (hughes out of the bullpen was phenomenal to watch) I would much rather root for AJ out of the 5 spot in the rotation and for hughes to be traded, high potential and all. Too bad that will never happen because AJ is making probably 11x more than Hughes…

    • Cris Pengiucci says:

      Except for the salary difference. Even paying 2/3 of AJ’s salary provides more relief than trading Hughes, I don’t think he’d return much more than Hughes. Certainly not an Ibanez-type bat.

      • Cris Pengiucci says:

        I don’t think he’d (Hughes) return much more than Hughes AJ.

        Fixed. Not getting my points across well this morning. More Coffee!!!

  14. jjyank says:

    I’ve always like AJ. I haven’t always liked watching him pitch, but I like his personality, I like his clubhouse presence, I like how he seems sincerely upset when he pitches poorly and continues to give 100% every 5 days. I liked the pie in the face for walk-off wins, and I hope that tradition remains going forward.

    I will miss AJ the person, but not really AJ the pitcher.

  15. Bartolo's Colon says:

    So who takes over pie throwing duties or do they ditch that practice all together??

  16. dean says:

    If AJ is dealt then while his signing wasn’t a success…..he did help then win a WS, he took the ball and was accountable…..which is a lot more than you can say for some guys that have came and went in the Bronx. I wish AJ well and really hope he turns it around in Pittsburgh or wherever he lands. Basically….the relationship ran its course….but I hope we can still be friends.

  17. Robinson Tilapia says:

    I love AJ. Loved him since he came up with the Marlins. That was a long time ago, however, the team has given him plenty of opportunities and, if the chance exists to get something a value for him and clear up the roster space, you take it.

    Doesn’t mean I don’t love AJ. Doesn’t mean I’d take back the signing. It is what it is with veterans.

  18. aluis says:

    Here’s the thing if he’s dealt he will undoubtly be better. His ERA in the AL East is in the low 5′s vs low 4′s the rest of the league. Now factor in the NL with the pitcher hitting and it should improve even more.

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