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.
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?