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

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

Whelan's on the block. (Getty)

The Yankees have a very full 40-man roster at the moment, so every player they acquire from here on out will cost another player his 40-man spot. Andruw Jones will need a spot whenever his new one-year deal becomes official, and Hiroyuki Nakajima will as well if he signs a contract before Friday’s deadline. Any trade for a starting pitcher will likely involve a 40-man roster player going the other way, but a free agent like Edwin Jackson means another 40-man spot will have to be cleared.

With Jones back, it seems likely that Justin Maxwell has moved to the front of the roster casualty line. He’s out of minors league options (meaning he’d have to clear waivers to be sent to the minors) and a right-handed hitting outfielder, which is the job Andruw will fill. Maxwell has some potential, but not enough to win the numbers game. Nakajima could take Ramiro Pena‘s 40-man spot, though Pena has one minor league option left and is the default emergency infielder. Perhaps Nakajima’s ability to play the middle infield plus Brandon Laird’s ability to play third plus Jayson Nix’s presence on a minor league contract makes Ramiro more expendable.

Along with Maxwell and possibly Pena, Kevin Whelan appears to be the most vulnerable. He certainly is among pitchers, anyway. The soon-to-be 28-year-old right-hander made his big league debut last season after being acquired in the Gary Sheffield trade, walking five of the ten batters he faced in one and two-thirds jittery innings. Control (and injury) has always been his problem, as the 2011 season was his first with a sub-5.5 BB/9 and a sub-14.0 BB% since 2006 (2.4 BB/9 and 6.8 BB%). He does miss bats through (career 11.1 K/9 and 29.7 K%), and with two minor league options left, he’s a not terrible piece of bullpen depth. George Kontos, Hector Noesi, David Phelps, and D.J. Mitchell are also on the 40-man and serve the same purpose though, and at some point something is going to have to give.

This year’s two Rule 5 Draft picks — Brad Meyers and Cesar Cabral — are also candidates to get cut if space is needed, though I hope not. Those two intrigue me more than any of the Yankees other recent Rule 5 picks, and I’d selfishly like to get a look at them in Spring Training. Chris Dickerson is out of options like Maxwell, and I have a hard time envisioning a scenario in which he’d make the team, barring a Spring Training injury. I suspect he’ll be kept around in camp for that very reason, then traded for a spare fringe prospect in late-March if the Yankees make it through the month with a healthy outfield. With two minor league options and upside left, Melky Mesa figures to be safe.

There’s also Pedro Feliciano, who is extremely unlikely to pitch in 2012 after having shoulder surgery in September. As far as I know, there is no rule preventing teams from releasing an injured player to free up 40-man space, but it rarely happens. I’m guessing it’s a courtesy to veteran players (the Yankees did release the injured Amaury Sanit last year), since he can be placed on the 60-day DL during the season to free up a spot while retaining all the 40-man benefits, like health care for his family. Feliciano figures to be 60-day DL’d as soon as possible/when necessary, maybe for a non-roster guy like Hideki Okajima.

Maxwell, Pena, and Whelan will likely be the first three to get the 40-man roster axe, but not necessarily in that order. That should be plenty of wiggle room until Spring Training, when Dickerson and Feliciano start to come into play. The Yankees don’t have very much flexibility with their 40-man because of all the young players they’re carrying — I count 16 with less than a year of service time, eight with zero MLB experience on the 40-man — which is a double-edged sword. It’s nice to have a good farm system, but at some point all these players have to go somewhere.

Prospect Profile: Daniel Camarena

(Jamie Scott Lytle/The North County Times)

Daniel Camarena | LHP

A Southern California kid from just south of San Diego in Bonita, Camarena grew up a fan of the Yankees and Andy Pettitte. He starred both on the mound and in the outfield for Cathedral Catholic High School, pitching the Dons to the California Interscholastic Federation title this spring. Camarena struck out 76 and walked just six in 49 IP as a senior, and four of those walks came in one outing. He took home a ton of hardware in high school, including Rawlings First Team All-American and California All-Region in 2011. He was also named First Team All-CIF and an AFLAC All-American in 2010.

Camarena was strongly committed to The University of San Diego, where he would have both pitched and played the field. Baseball America (subs. req’d) ranked him as the 15th best prospect in SoCal and 138th best prospect overall prior to the draft, but the USD commitment caused him to slide to the Yankees in the 20th round, the 629th overall pick. He agreed to an above-slot $335k bonus about a week before the signing deadline, but did not appear in a game after signing.

[Read more…]

Past Trade Review: Javier Vazquez, Part II

(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty)

TYA/Yankeeist readers may recall a semi-regular offseason feature I always greatly enjoyed doing, “Bizarre Moves from Seasons Past,” in which I’d examine a particular move or non-move the Yankees made and try to make sense of why they opted to go the way they did. For your reading enjoyment, here’s the full roster of previous “Bizarre Moves” posts:

I’d been racking my brain for some new entries in this series, but kept coming up blank until it finally hit me why: Brian Cashman and the Yankees haven’t really made any so-called “Bizarre” moves during the last few seasons. I won’t go so far as to say the transaction record has been flawless, but, for the most part, the trades, free agent signings and non-moves made by Cash since the 2008-2009 offseason have been understandable/defensible. Sure, we can all decry the A.J. Burnett contract now — and it certainly had its detractors back when it was signed — but the 2009 Yankees needed pitching, and though it may have been an overpay, Burnett filled an important need on the team that season.

Off the top of my head, the only flat-out terrible moves made by Cash — and here I’m defining flat-out terrible as “completely obvious to the entire world that they wouldn’t work out” — during the last couple of years were the additions of Randy Winn and Chan Ho Park. And even though they were pointless signings, it’s still hard to kill Cash for trying to bolster the bullpen and bench on the relatively cheap. I think we can all agree that nothing better underscores Cash’s restraint than his (non)activities during the previous calendar year (save Pedro Feliciano), which include remaining calm in the face of growing unrest regarding the pitching staff last January, and passing on unrealistic trades for questionable pitchers at last July’s trade deadline.

However, as quiet as Cash has been, we also know he won’t hesitate to pull the trigger on a deal when he thinks he’s found a good one. Being that the Javier Vazquez/Boone Logan for Melky Cabrera/Arodys Vizcaino/Mike Dunn deal was the last blockbuster trade Cash orchestrated, I thought I’d take a look back at it from RAB’s “Past Trade Review” perspective, as it really doesn’t fall under the “Bizarre Moves” heading. One other note — in fairness, Mike and Joe were a bit hesitant about me reviewing this deal seeing as how the book is still out on Vizcaino, but I think we can take a look at how the trade worked out given the other players involved while keeping Vizcaino in the backs of our minds.


Not content to rest on the laurels of the franchise’s 27th World Championship, Brian Cashman quickly went to work in the 2009-2010 offseason to bolster (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) the pitching staff, as the Yankees managed to win it all despite being just the second team in the last 20 years to utilize a three-man rotation throughout the entire postseason.

Noted workhorse and one-time Yankee Javier Vazquez — who Cashman had previously traded three players (Nick Johnson, Juan River, and Randy Choate) for in November 2003 following a superb season by Vazquez in which he struck out 9.4 men per nine, walked 2.2, and put up a pitcher triple slash 3.24 ERA/3.31 FIP/3.41 xFIP worth 6.0 fWAR, only to have Vazquez come apart at the seams in the second half of the 2004 season after an All-Star first half and subsequently get shipped out of town for Randy Johnson — was coming off a superb 2009 campaign with Atlanta, in which he racked up his fifth straight season of 200-plus innings (and 9th in the last 10 years), 2.87 ERA, and 9.77 K/9 and 1.81 BB/9, which led to a matching 2.77 FIP and xFIP, the latter of which led the entire National League.

With Brett Gardner showing that, at the very least, he was a reliable 4th outfielder if not outright platoon player, and the execrable Melky Cabrera coming off his 4th straight season of below-average offense (wRC+es of 98, 89, 69 and 94), the Yankees correctly made the no-brainer move of dealing from a position of strength in shipping the ever-underwhelming Cabrera to the Braves as the centerpiece of a deal that reunited Vazquez with the Yankees. Of course, Melky alone wasn’t enough (1.6 fWAR in 2009) to get a player of Vazquez’s caliber (fresh off a 6.5 fWAR campaign), and so the Yankees added the highly touted, right-handed, flame-throwing Arodys Vizcaino (who had just come off a 2.13 ERA/2.49 FIP season in 42.1 innings with Staten Island) and left-handed reliever Mike Dunn. The Braves also chipped in a lefty reliever of their own to complete the deal, sending Boone Logan to the Bronx.

After putting up a 4.91 ERA/4.78 FIP/4.51 xFIP in 198 innings (worth 2.2 fWAR) for the 2004 Yankees, there were high evenly tempered hopes that Home Run Javy’s second tour of duty as a Yankee would turn out significantly better. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as HRJ battled A.J. Burnett for much of the 2010 season to see who could be more historically awful. Javy wound up winning this ignominious battle with flying colors, putting up a 5.32 ERA/5.56 FIP/4.69 xFIP in 157.1 innings (worth -0.1 fWAR) and posting career-worsts in just about every major category.

However, for as wretched as Javy was in his second go-round with the Yanks, Melky was arguably even worse for the Braves, tying Carlos Lee for the least-valuable player in all of MLB in 2010. Somehow, both men found new employers for 2011 and each enjoyed an absurd amount of success relative to their 2010 failures, with Vazquez recording a 3.69/3.57/3.87 year in 192.2 innings (worth 3.2 fWAR) for the Marlins, while Melky had the year of his life in Kansas City, boasting a .305/.339/.470 slash in a season worth 4.2 fWAR. Suffice it to say, I don’t think either player would ever have put those respective seasons up at any point as members of the Yankees. Melky maybe, but Vazquez pretty clearly needs the National League to be a successful pitcher. In any event, if you look at the trade primarily as a Melky-for-Javy swap, I’d still say the Yankees wound up ahead even with Javy’s terrible season, as he out-fWARed Melky by 0.9.

What about the secondary components of the trade? For all the griping about Boone Logan, he’s actually been pretty effective as the Yankees’ sole left-handed reliever these last two seasons, putting up 0.7 combined fWAR across just over 80 innings (yes, I know fWAR is near-worthless in assessing relievers, but I’m using it anyway). Mike Dunn threw 19.1 frames for the Braves in 2010 (1.89 ERA/3.61 FIP) and walked 8.05(!) men per nine, before hooking on with the Marlins this past season and hurling 63 innings of 3.43 ERA/4.30 FIP ball, almost halving that absurd walk rate (though it still checked in at an unsightly 4.43 per nine) but not enough to provide positive value to the team (-0.1 fWAR). I’d say the Yankees got the better end of the left-handed reliever swap as well.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, while they may not regret losing Melky or Dunn, they almost certainly regret including Vizcaino — who ranked 16th on Baseball America’s midseason Top 50 list this past season, and currently checks in as the Braves’ second-best prospect overall on both BA’s list and John Sickels‘, behind only Julio Teheran — in the deal, as Vizacaino rocketed through the Braves’ system and reached the big league club this past August, throwing 17.1 innings of 4.67 ERA/3.54 FIP ball out of the bullpen with an 8.83 K/9. Vizcaino — still just 21 years old —  is expected to compete for a rotation spot on the staff come Spring Training. While the Yankees have their share of minor league pitching talent knocking on the door, having Vizcaino — who our own Mike Axisa would have slotted as #3 in between Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances on his  Top 30 Yankee Prospect list — in the mix for a potential rotation spot would certainly make the team’s 2012 starting rotation picture a bit less fuzzy.

RAB’s Top Ten Posts of 2011

As 2011 drew to a close, I poked around on Google Analytics, as I often do. We had over 16 million pageviews last year, and were it not for ALDS Game 5, we would have had more. We had a noticeably significant drop-off in traffic after the Yanks’ early departure from the October dance.

While I’m a few days late on it this year, I always like to highlight our top ten most trafficked posts of the year. As always these do not include game threads or open threads.

1. Predicting MLB Trade Rumors’ Top 50 Free Agents
Our most popular post of the year hit in November when Joe tried to predict landing spots for MLBTR’s top free agents of the winter. So far, out of his top ten predictions, he’s 2 for 9 with one still out there. That one, of course, is Edwin Jackson.

2. 2011 Preseason Top 30 Prospects
Mike ran down his top 30 prospects of the season shortly before Spring Training began. Jesus Montero and Manny Banuelos took the top two spots, and I believe they’ll do the same again next month.

3. Camp Notes: Rotation, Burnett, Jeter, CC, More
This was a post from the first day of Spring Training. While the news was bland, it was baseball. We had waited all winter for that first day of camp.

4. Brian Cashman, Prevaricator Extraordinaire?
As the Yanks’ offseason continued, it’s been one of stasis. The team, in need of a pitcher, seems committed to bringing back nearly the same club — sans Jorge and Bartolo — as last year, and Brian Cashman keeps perpetuating the notion that the Yanks are just waiting out the right move. Moshe wondered in December if it was all just a ruse to keep potential trade partners from trying to take advantage of the club with all of the money.

5. Yankees made bid for Darvish, high bidder could be announced tonight
That bid, we learned today, was for a meager $15 million, but everyone wanted to talk about Darvish.

6. Report: Indians, others have interest in Swisher
Despite the fact that he’s a very solid right fielder who fits well into the Yankee lineup and comes with a very affordable price tag, Yankee fans have searched high and low to find ways to trade Nick Swisher. Just before Christmas, word got out that a few teams, including the Indians, would be interested in a deal. Of course, trading Swisher just opens up another hole in the Yankee lineup and one not easily filled. He’ll be around on Opening Day.

7. 2011 Draft: Yankees take Dante Bichette Jr. with 51st overall pick
Many raised eyebrows and a good number of complaints were silenced by a stellar Gulf Coast League debut for the now-19-year-old Bichette.

8. Hideki Irabu, 42, found dead in Los Angeles home
The troubled former Yankee took his own life after a battle with his own inner demons and lofty expectations. Irabu was a heralded Japanese import who never lived up to his reputation.

9. Repeating History with Yu Darvish
Considering the Yanks were never that into Yu Darvish, he certainly garnered a lot of discussion this fall. He and the Rangers, by the way, have yet to work out a deal, but indications are that he will sign. Can he front a rotation that’s been searching for a true ace for a while?

10. Yankees win bidding for Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima
The Yanks put in a $2 million bid on Nakajima seemingly as an afterthought, and scouts say he’s not much of a hitter or fielder. Right now, it doesn’t sound as though a deal is on the horizon, but the two sides have until Friday to work out a contract.

So the hot topics were mostly about free agency and the winter of our discontent. The Yanks lost an ALDS they could have won and have yet to make a splash with Spring Training just a few weeks away. We yearned for Darvish; we got Nakajima; and we’re still waiting for some of those top 50 free agents to sign. It was a great ride in 2011, and we’ll be here again, of course, for 2012.

Updated: Yankees bid $15M for Darvish

Jan. 3rd: Just for the sake of completeness, here’s an update to let you know that the Yankees bid exactly $15M for Darvish according to Jon Heyman. You can now go back to your regularly scheduling complaining about the pitching staff.

Dec. 22nd: Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees bid somewhere between $15-17M for Darvish. Various reports also indicate that no team was even close to the Rangers, who apparently blew away the field with their $51.7M bid. This whole thing is reminiscent of the Daisuke Matsuzaka bidding, when it was the Red Sox (big gap) everyone else.

Dec. 20th: Via Andrew Marchand, the Yankees bid less than $20M for Yu Darvish. The Rangers won the right-hander’s negotiating rights with a $51.7M bid, so the Yankees weren’t even in the same ballpark. This morning we heard that they submitted their bid with the idea that he could fall into their laps if other clubs were tapped out this late in the winter, but obviously that didn’t happen. Marchand says the Yankees just weren’t sold on how Darvish’s stuff and makeup would translate over from Japan, and I guess you have to be sure if you’re going to invest nine-figures.

Open Thread: Johnny Damon

Still insane. (AP Photo/Rob Carr)

I was conflicted when the Yankees signed Johnny Damon on this date in 2006, giving him a four-year contract just two years after he broke our hearts during the 2004 ALCS. He was the enemy, he wasn’t supposed to wear pinstripes. Like he’s done everywhere else, Johnny grew on the fans during his time in New York and became an integral part of the team.

I think we all have a “signature moment” associated with players, like Scott Brosius and his homer off Byung-Hyun Kim or Jim Leyritz and his homer off Mark Wohlers, and my signature moment for Damon is the double steal in Game Four of the 2009 World Series. Dunno why, but whenever I think of Johnny as a Yankee, that’s the first thing that jumps to mind. I remember thinking that he must have thought the ball went into center field when he first broke towards third, giving me a mild heart attack. Stuff like that is why baseball is better than any other spot; I’d never seen a player do that before, and Damon had just done it on the biggest stage possible.

Johnny turned 38 last month, a few weeks after wrapping a nice season with the Rays that was a far cry from his time in pinstripes. Damon hit .285/.363/.458 during his four years in New York, playing in 140+ games all four years even though he always seemed to be battling calf problems or a sore back or some other old baseball player ailment. I’m not sure if he qualified as a fan favorite, but he was a solid player with the Yankees and gave us one hell of a memory in that ninth inning on that cold November night.

* * *

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Islanders are the only local team playing tonight, but guess what? Still no MSG if you’re a Time Warner customer. Talk about whatever you like here, have at it.