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Burnett and Nova

Last night, A.J. Burnett allowed 14 baserunners in 5.1 innings, yet allowed only four runs. In some quarters this will be viewed as a triumph. Yet, his runs allowed per nine rose to 4.62 in a year in which the average American League starting pitcher has allowed only 4.29. This doesn’t quite rise to the level of disastrous, especially when compared to how poorly Burnett pitched last year, but it’s far from good.

The Yankees have a better pitcher, or perhaps pitchers, toiling at Triple-A right now. His name is Ivan Nova. He was sent down because he’s young and cheap whereas Burnett is old and expensive. The latter also has, or had, a higher upside if only he could get everything working. He just so rarely does have it all working; fewer than half his starts have risen to the accepted definition of "quality." He’s gotten there in eight of 20 attempts, or 40 percent. The league average is 55 percent.

Nova was only at 50 percent himself, but the trends were pointing in the right direction. After a couple of rough April starts, he was quality in seven of 13 starts and compiling a 3.42 ERA in 76.1 innings. Since heading to Scranton, he’s allowed five runs in 14.2 innings, striking out 15 and walking one. He has not been and will not be nearly so spectacular in the majors, but he’s clearly more organized at the moment than is Burnett.

Some readers will no doubt find my praise of Nova ironic given that over the weekend I suggested that the inclusion of Nova should not be an impediment to a major trade for a pitcher of Ubaldo Jimenez’s stuff. A few also questioned my commitment to young players. The contradiction-free response is as follows:

At 27, Jimenez is relatively young, particularly for the Yankees.

Nova is young, but until/unless he develops a strikeout pitch I believe he is ultimately destined for the bullpen.

A pitcher who has been stingy with the home run in the minors, he has been more profligate with the long-ball in the bigs, primarily because pitching to contact at Yankee Stadium is a bad idea—his career ERA at home is, where he allows 1.2 home runs per nine inning is 4.79, versus 3.58 on the road, where he allows just 0.4.

His current success is built on a slight groundball tendency he has lately manifested, and I’m not convinced it will last.

The presence of Burnett, Colon, and Garcia on the roster, particularly the last two (and regardless of results) shows that the Yankees are not particularly interested in their own young pitchers and won’t let a silly thing like performance deflect them away from Burnett even if he’s being out-pitched. Thus, Nova isn’t a pitcher but an insurance policy at best. If you can swap your insurance policy for someone else’s ace, you do that.

Everything about Nova—good fastball but weak secondary offerings and a tendency to stop fooling hitters in the middle innings seems to scream relief work. He might someday develop that solid extra pitch, but it’s a gamble, whereas a Jimenez (or another established pitcher) has already cleared that particular hurdle. I remain a strong believer in internal development and a youth movement for the Yankees, but I don’t believe in youth solely for youth’s sake—if that was a goal worth pursuing, you could bring up any kid from any level of the minors. No, the youngster has to be demonstrably better than what you currently have. Nova is better than Burnett right now, but in the long term he’s likely to be surpassed. He’s just not special, and when someone offers to trade you their best stuff for your everyday, average players, you jump. That’s how legendarily lopsided trades are born. Every deal is a gamble, but Nova is not one of those chips not likely to come back and bite them.

In short, when it comes to Nova, the Yankees need to use him (for Burnett) or lose him (for someone better than Burnett and himself).