After a disappointing 2008 regular season, the New York Yankees recognized their biggest weakness, starting pitching, and set out during the off-season to solidify the spot.
The primary target for general manager Brian Cashman was known to all, the media, the fans and the rest of Major League Baseball — C.C. Sabathia. Sabathia had just won a Cy-Young Award in 2007 and had just pitched during a playoff run with the Milwaukee Brewers, demonstrating a team-first mentality by pitching on three day’s rest.
Adding Sabathia was a relative no-brainer for all those involved, but Cashman did not stop there. Another free-agent starting pitcher was available, one that had pitched in the American League East and dominated both the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.
The pitcher, Toronto Blue Jays right hander, A.J. Burnett. The 6-foot-4 righty has all the tools that a team looks for within a pitcher. He has the height and the filthy stuff that makes him capable of throwing a no-hitter each and every time he takes the hill.
However, there were warning signs: Burnett had been on the disabled list over five times in his career, only pitching a full season during his final years of contracts. He has also displayed a maddening inability to pitch to his potential.
Burnett had been a model of inconsistency during the off-season prior to 2009 with a career record that had him at a .500 winning percentage, making him average, but Cashman took a chance on him.
Three years into his Yankees tenure and there is a huge problem, an $82.5 million problem. Yankees manager Joe Girardi speaks of having the best players on the field at all times, but Burnett is no longer one of the five best starting pitching options the Yankees have.
His record is 8-9 with an ERA slightly above the league-average at 4.60, but that does not begin to tell the story. Burnett has not won a decision since June, he was staked to a 13-1 lead and could not earn the victory, showing his inability to focus at key times.
Meanwhile rookie Ivan Nova has been placed on the Scranton to New York shuttle all season, going from Triple A to the Majors and vice versa. His shuttle back and forth is not because of bad results, but because of circumstance.
The 24-year-old showed he had something special last season when after surrendering a home run to Jays slugger Jose Bautista, Nova threw one up and in to the slugger his next time up. It was a return to the old-school style of pitching and Nova let Bautista and everyone else know that the plate belongs to him.
He has ridden the confidence of that confrontation into this season, winning his last eight decisions while possessing an 11-4 record. Nova has shown that he is not afraid of the situation, making the clutch pitch when it is needed.
He has pitched so well that one A.L. scout said that if he were the Yankees management making the decision on a postseason rotation, Nova would be the No. 2 starter. Girardi has already come out and stated that Nova is in the rotation for good, he has earned the right.
The decision to cut down one starter comes down to Phil Hughes or Burnett. Hughes, the former 18-game winner and All-Star last season, has pitched much better of late. In fact, over his past two starts, spanning 12 innings, he has only surrendered two runs while striking out 10.
Most importantly, the velocity that had been missing earlier this year, has now reappeared, making his fastball once again a swing-and-miss pitch. Hughes is still young and can only improve from where he currently stands, but Burnett can’t and has already proved this fact.
If Girardi stands by his best nine play mantra, it will be Burnett shipped off the pen while Hughes helps steady the rotation.
If not, the Yankees are taking a risk they don’t need in their chase of the first-place Boston Red Sox.
Ryan Lazo is a Senior Writer for BaseballDigest.com. He can be reached at RMLazo13@gmail.com, followed on Twitter @RMLazo13 and read his blog Artificially Enhanced.