2011 Season Preview: A.J. Burnett

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

Hope. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

As far as disappointments go, it’s tough to beat what A.J. Burnett did last season. I give him credit for making 30 starts and throwing 186.2 innings, though very few of those starts and innings were quality outings. A.J. set new career worsts in batting average against (.279), swing-and-miss rate (7.9%), strikeout rate (6.99 K/9), ERA (5.26), FIP (4.83), and xFIP (4.66). In the history of the New York Yankees franchise, even going back to when they were the Highlanders, that ERA is the highest by any pitcher who’s thrown at least 175 IP in pinstripes in a single season. Burnett wasn’t just bad, he was historically bad.

After whiffing on Cliff Lee and watching Andy Pettitte call it a career this winter, the Yankees need A.J. to be the $16.5M a year pitcher they’re paying him to be, now more than ever. Burnett has already altered his mechanics at the behest of new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, eliminating the swing of his front leg and instead driving it towards the plate. Whether or not the adjustments help in the regular season remain to be seen, but the early results in Spring Training are encouraging.

Best Case

For a guy like Burnett, it feels like the sky is the limit. His fastball still hums in at 93-94 mph with what looks like zero effort, and his curveball can be so good at times that it makes you wonder how anyone ever gets a bat on it. When prompted by the catcher, he’ll also throw a decent changeup just to mix something else in. The best season of A.J.’s career came during his final year in Toronto, when he amassed 5.5 fWAR and led the American League in strikeouts (231) and was third in innings pitched (221.1). Not only was he striking out well over a batter per inning, but he was also generating a ground ball on close to 50% of balls in play (48.5% to be exact).

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

The best case scenario has Burnett being that guy again, so we’re talking about a strikeout an inning with a healthy dose of ground balls. Getting his curveball – a pitch that averaged 14.3 runs above average from 2005 through 2009 but dropped off to 3.9 runs below average in 2010 – back on track is on part of that process, as is finding the two inches of horizontal movement his fastball lost during the 2009-2010 offseason. Perhaps the new mechanics can help, and hey, perhaps they can make his stuff even better.

Burnett’s always been plagued by command issues, but that doesn’t necessarily mean walks. His 1.21 HR/9 last season was his worst in four years and the second worst of his career, though that goes hand-in-hand with the added ground balls. Left-handers also gave him as especially tough time (4.78 FIP compared to 3.78 career). It’s easier said than done of course, but correcting these flaws (which really started to manifest themselves last season) will help get A.J. back into five-win form, an ace worthy of his paycheck.

Worst Case

Could it possibly get any worse than it was last season? Unfortunately, it can. For all his struggles, Burnett did manage to rack up 1.3 fWAR thanks mostly to his bulk innings, providing more value to his team than guys like Jeff Niemann (1.2 fWAR), Jon Garland (0.8 fWAR), and Randy Wolf (0.7 fWAR). A continued decline in strikeout and ground ball rates will bring him ever closer to replacement level, as will another increase in his homerun rate.

At 34-years-old, it’s likely that A.J.’s fastball velocity will continue its slow and steady decline, meaning the days of reaching back and throwing a fastball by a hitter in a jam are a thing of the past. Given his #LowPitchingIQ, all the refined mechanics in the world might not be able to help Burnett if his stuff continues its descent into mediocrity. As was the case with Phil Hughes yesterday, the 2010 version of Javy Vazquez is a fine approximation of what Burnett’s worst case scenario might look like.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

What’s Likely To Happen

Who knows? That pretty much sums up this part of the preview. A.J. is as unpredictable as they come; on his good days he’ll look like the best pitcher on the planet, on his worst you’ll wonder how he ever made it out of A-ball. He certainly doesn’t make it easy, that’s for sure.

It’s been all of two Spring Training starts, but Burnett said that his more compact delivery feels natural, so he doesn’t find himself thinking about it on the mound, which I suppose is progress. The lost velocity is very real, however he still averaged 93.1 mph with the heater in 2010. Even if he loses another mile an hour (getting down to 92) this season, that’s plenty enough for a big league starter. No excuses there. The curveball … I don’t know what the hell is going on there. After years of being a dominant pitch (at +71.8 runs above average from ’05-’09, the best in the game by more than 12 full runs), I have a hard time believing it just fell right off and become a below-average pitch in what amounts to an offseason. I expect some improvement there.

Call me (cautiously) optimistic, but I think we’ll see a Burnett that is better than what he was in 2010 this season, but perhaps not as good as he was in 2009. That would put him right around a 4.50-4.60 FIP, so let’s split the middle and call it 4.55. That would be the third worst full season of his career, but spread out over 30 or 31 starts*, you’ve got a two, two-and-a-half win pitcher. Would you take that out of A.J. this year? I would, but perhaps my expectations are too low.

* Funny how we aren’t really concerned about Burnett’s durability anymore, huh? He’s proven himself in that department over the last three seasons, that’s for sure.

Buying out A-Rod

Late last week, word spread that the Giants would “consider” buying Barry Zito out of the final three years and $64.5M left on his contract. It all turned out to be nothing but speculation, and the team has repeatedly denied the report. It doesn’t make a lick of sense for them either; Zito’s overpaid but not useless. Guys that you can pencil in for at least 180 IP with a FIP in the mid-4.00’s have value, especially when your rotation is a bunch of 20-somethings coming off career high workloads following a World Series run. Anyway, hearing that stuff made me think about the Yankees’ own albatross contract, the one belonging to Alex Rodriguez.

My bank is that-a-way. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

As many of you may know, I’m also a pretty big hockey fan, and unlike MLB, the NHL has a system in place that allows a team to buy out a player’s contract. It’s complicated and I won’t bore you with the gory details, but the general idea is that the player gets two-thirds of the money spread out over twice the years. There’s salary cap ramifications and all that, plus the actual year-to-year distribution of the cash is a little tricky, but the general idea is two-thirds the money, twice the years. If you want to read more about the process, check out the Understanding The Cap page at Blue Seat Blogs.

I wanted to have a little fun, so I applied the NHL buyout rules to the remainder of Alex Rodriguez’s contract. We’re a little too late in the game to buy out the 2011 season, so let’s just assume that this would occur next offseason. At that point, Alex will have six years and $143M left on his deal (yikes), so we’re converting it to 12 years and $95.3M. Here’s the breakdown of the annual payouts and savings, so make sure you click the graph for a larger view…

If the Yankees were to buy out Alex as per the NHL rules in my completely hypothetical situation, it would clearly be a trade of long-term pain for short-term gain. The team would save upwards of $20M in both 2012 and 2013, plus another $14M in 2014 before single-digit savings in each of the next three seasons. That brings us to when the contract is supposed to expire, but per the terms of the buyout, the Yankees would still have to pay A-Rod close to $8M a year for the next six seasons. That’s chump change for the Yanks, but $8M is still $8M.

So with Alex bought out, what would the Yankees do at the hot corner? I suppose they could always give Brandon Laird a shot, but that’s pretty much it for the in-house candidates. There aren’t many third baseman on the free agent market next offseason, with Bill Hall representing the only option that jumps out as affordable and reasonably productive. The Yankees aren’t going to buy out A-Rod only to sign Aramis Ramirez (another older and declining third baseman) to a big contract, so that rules him out.

The smart move would probably involve sliding Derek Jeter over to third and finding a new shortstop. That would open the door for Jose Reyes or J.J. Hardy, two guys scheduled to hit the open market after the season. The end result would be a younger team, certainly, but probably one lacking a big bat in the middle of the lineup, something A-Rod still provides at his age.

Would I do it? Eh, probably not. I guess it really depends on how Alex looks in 2011. If he has a big rebound year, say .290/.380/.530 with 35 homers or so, then I’d keep him. If he continues his slide and puts up something like .250/.335/.475 with 25 homers, I’d probably buy him out and take the savings. What about you?

Would you buy out A-Rod per the terms above?
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MLB Experts on Babe Ruth

All your favorite MLB writers and analysts and managers and more talk about the awesomeness of Babe Ruth. Enjoy.

Rivera praises Banuelos: ‘I like everything about him’

Via Andrew Marchand, Mariano Rivera praised just about everything you could possibly praise about the soon to be 20-year-old Manny Banuelos. “I like everything about him,” said Rivera. “The makeup and how he keeps his composure. I notice situations and how you react in situations. Where you make your pitches in tough situations, where you spot your pitches, he has the ability to do that.” Considering the source, this put a smile on my face. “If [Mariano] says that, maybe it is real,” responded Banuelos, who will celebrate his birthday on Sunday.

“Stay humble, stay within yourself, God will take care of the rest,” said Rivera when asked about what he’s told Banuelos. “You don’t try to put that junk in your mind because that will hurt you.” Amen brother.

Open Thread: March 9th Camp Notes

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

The latest from Tampa…

  • The Yankees are playing the Pirates tonight, but the game isn’t on television anywhere. Rafael Soriano is scheduled to pitch, and Eduardo Nunez will come off the bench to play the outfield. That’s interesting. (Erik Boland & Chad Jennings)
  • Mariano Rivera threw live batting practice for the first time today, and could make his Grapefruit League debut on Friday. (George King)
  • “There’s nothing hot,” said Brian Cashman about the pitching market. “I’ve got nothing going on. Zero.” Both Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon can opt out of their contracts if they don’t make the team out of Spring Training, though Colon has expressed an interest in being the longman if he doesn’t crack the rotation. No word on whether or not Garcia is willing to do the same. (all Marc Carig)
  • The Yankees brain trust and the beat writers played their annual game of paintball, so Chad Jennings held us over with a look inside the GMS Field clubhouse. Sounds rather big. The team officials topped the beat writers 4-1. You’re letting us down, fellas. (Yankees PR Dept. & Mark Feinsand)

Here’s the open thread for the evening. MLB Network has the Orioles-Red Sox game (live) while SNY is carrying a replay of today’s Mets-Astros game. The Rangers, Knicks, and Nets are all in action at different times as well. Enjoy.