Yanks up in arms over rotation

Missing on Lee, Pettitte's potential exit mean rebirth of troubled Burnett is key

December 26, 2010|By Phil Rogers

Given the wear and tear on credit cards everywhere this time of year, it's easy to think you can always buy happiness. But spending isn't always the solution to your problems, even if you're the Yankees.

With Cliff Lee having turned down $132 million and Andy Pettitte seemingly headed for retirement, the Yankees are stunningly short on starting pitching. They are counting on Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett behind CC Sabathia, with rookie Ivan Nova and journeyman Sergio Mitre the next-best options.

General manager Brian Cashman will surely add an arm or two before spring training — although for the moment he's talking about internal options — but little would mean more for the team that has been to the championship series nine times in the last 15 seasons than getting more from Burnett, who isn't going anywhere.

The Tigers, Angels and Twins can relate to the Yankees' dilemma. They need turnarounds from key guys in Rick Porcello, Scott Kazmir and Nick Blackburn, respectively, as the Cubs must hope that they get the good Carlos Zambrano more often than the bad one.

The White Sox, Mets and Nationals have much invested in the renewed health of Jake Peavy, Johan Santana and Jordan Zimmermann. Kyle Lohse appears a lost cause in St. Louis, even though he has two years and almost $24 million left on his contract, and the Red Sox are only a little more optimistic about Daisuke Matsuzaka, who joins the Giants' Barry Zito as an ace turned No. 5 starter.

No comeback candidate is more critical than Burnett, however.

Signed to a five-year, $82.5 million deal after an 18-win, 221-inning season for the Blue Jays in 2008, Burnett was 10-15 with a 5.26 earned-run average in 2010, and those numbers don't really show the true level of disappointment. His ERA spiked to 7.01 when you don't consider nine starts against the lowly Orioles, Indians and Royals, which was why Yankees manager Joe Girardi started him only once in his team's nine-game playoff run.

He's more of a project for new Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild than even Mark Prior, who was signed to a minor league deal.

"A.J. and I have talked a lot," Girardi said. "And A.J. reached out to Larry Rothschild, and they're going to work on some things before spring training even starts. For A.J., it was a tough year last year. But I believe he's going to have a good year. He's going to bounce back this year and be the pitcher that we expected."

It's hard to see where Girardi finds his optimism, as Burnett has lost velocity off his fastball three years in a row (according to PitchFX) and gets fewer swings and misses on his curveball. He's never had much of a changeup, but even that's deteriorated — the differential from fastball to changeup dropping from about 8 m.p.h. in '08 to only a little more than 5 m.p.h. last season.

Burnett's biggest loss has been in his command. During his two seasons with the Yankees, he's led the American League in walks (2009), wild pitches ('09) and hit batters ('10).

"The ability is there," said Dave Eiland, whom Cashman canned as pitching coach after the ALCS loss to the Rangers. "A.J.'s hungry, A.J.'s a competitor, A.J. wants to win as bad as anyone. … He's gonna make some mechanical adjustments, I know, with Larry Rothschild. As long as he stays healthy, I think he's gonna have a great year. I really do."

Girardi knows that Burnett's mental toughness will be tried if he doesn't bounce back quickly. He's become a target for frustrated fans and it never helps a player to get booed at home.

"You always worry a little bit," Girardi said. "Each time you go through something, it's a new thing. … If he gets off to a bad start, does it make it more difficult? Yeah, it does. But I don't think it's something that he can't overcome."

Learning curve: The Tigers expected to ride their rotation and Miguel Cabrera, the AL's Albert Pujols, to a division title last season.

But a 5-19 start to the second half buried them and six straight losses the last week of the season left them 81-81, 13 games behind the Twins.

Following a 14-9 season as a 20-year-old in 2009, Porcello never got on a roll. He wound up 10-12 with a 4.92 ERA, up nearly a full run from his rookie season, and saw his workload drop to 1622/3 innings.

He'll be only 22 when his third season begins, however, and Tigers manager Jim Leyland said he still expects him to become one of the league's top pitchers.

"I think he's going to be absolutely fine," Leyland said. "He came in, made a big splash and your second year, things catch up with you a little bit, the league knows you a little better, you know the league a little better. You have some trial-and-error periods and I think it was nothing more than that for Rick Porcello. He's going to be an excellent pitcher for a long time."

Leyland points to Tigers ace Justin Verlander getting whacked around in his third full season (11-17, 4.84 in 2008). He bounced back to win 19 games, work 240 innings and finish third in Cy Young Award voting in 2009.

"Sometimes guys like Rick Porcello and those star young players like that, they have never had any adversity, athletically," Leyland said. "All of a sudden you're in the big leagues you're going to have a little of that and I think it's important how you learn to handle it. I think that both Justin and Rick Porcello have handled it very well. You have to go through that and as a manager, you can't eliminate that. … The key is how you handle it."


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