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The Sixth Man

A.J. Burnett was underwhelming once again on Monday night. (AP)

The Yankees ongoing rotation saga continues. Since we last discussed it, Brian Cashman spoke out in A.J. Burnett's defense and offered a quote for the ages, Phil Hughes delivered six strong innings against the Rays, and the rotation's herd of six remains unculled due to a cut on Freddy Garcia's finger that caused him to be scratched from his Sunday turn. On Monday night, Burnett delivered another less-than-stellar start, leaving the question of what comes next hanging in the air.

Burnett's outing against the Royals followed a familiar script, in that he threw four scoreless innings before being roughed up for three runs in the fifth. He didn't exactly dominate for those four innings, but he set down the side in order in the first and third, left the bases loaded in the second, and overcame a pair of singles via an inning-ending double play in the fourth. To that point, the Yankees led 2-0 thanks to a pair of second-inning runs via three singles and two walks against Royals starter Felipe Paulino; they missed a chance to break the game open by leaving the bases loaded.

As if determined to fall off the tightrope after walking it long enough, Burnett found trouble in the fifth, surrendering three straight one-out singles to load the bases, issuing a bases-loaded walk to a tenacious Melky Cabrera (who came back from 0-2), and then allowing a two-run single to Billy Butler to give the Royals a 3-2 lead. Fortunately, he escaped further damage with a made-to-order double play, and the Yankees quickly got back the three runs they surrendered via three singles and a Derek Jeter triple.

After sandwiching two outs around yet another single — the 10th hit he allowed on the night — Burnett yielded to Boone Logan, who along with Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, and Mariano Rivera took the baton the rest of the way home; the latter's outing was spotless, ending his streak of being scored upon in three straight games. From a bookkeeping standpoint, I suppose the story is that Burnett got a win in August for the first time since joining the Yankees; he had gone 0-8 with a 7.18 ERA in 13 such starts over the past three seasons. Still, he barely escaped embarrassment against a team that was 21 games under .500, and failed to deliver a quality start for the eight straight time; three of those eight have been 5.2-inning, three-run jobs. His performance wasn't irredeemable; while he struck out just two, he got the two double plays, walked only one hitter, and kept the ball in the park. All 10 of the hits were singles, so you can chalk up whatever woes he had to a bit of cruelty from the BABIP gods.

In all, it was the kind of start that would barely earn a passing grade, and while the pitcher was reserved in his self-assessment — "No pie for that" — Joe Girardi echoed the company line when it came to managing expectations for the righty:

"I think a lot of times when players are evaluated, I think the salary is one thing that’s always thrown into the mix," Girardi said. "And that’s understandable. I understand that. With a high salary is always high expectations, but there’s been some games here that he could have won that we didn’t necessarily score runs. What’s fair in life and unfair, everyone’s going to have a different opinion, but I think he’s thrown the ball better than some of the outcomes he’s had."

Those words follow Cashman's odd plea prior to last Friday's game:

Cashman believes that Burnett is being discriminated against because of his salary. He signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract prior to the 2009 season and will earn $16.5 million this season. Those numbers are juxtaposed with his 8-9 record and 4.60 ERA. Cashman said that salary would not be a factor in deciding who stays in the rotation.

"If you smoke the objective pipe I think the coverage of it will be smoother, more accurate," he said. "I think the reaction to him is overblown. I think he’s being treated differently publicly because he has money attached. So forgive him for saying yes to a contract. If you want to blame someone for his contract, blame me. But the man can still pitch."

..."No, he’s not pitching like a No. 2 starter," Cashman said. "He’s pitching like a quality starter in the American League that can help. If you take his money out of the equation, people that try to trade for him for the stretch drive can feel good about it. Let’s put it that away."

Prior to moving to Brooklyn, I lived in Manhattan's occasionally wild and crazy East Village for 13 years, but of all the drug dealers I could hear hawking their wares late at night, never did one solicit sales of anything to be smoked out of an objective pipe.

My doctor doesn't approve of my smoking the objective pipe, or any other for that matter. But by the most rational analysis, Burnett has been among the AL's shakiest rotation regulars. He gets points for showing up for work instead of making the Yankees turn to a replacement, but not much more than that; he's been worth 0.4 WARP this season. Of the 52 AL starters with at least 115 innings, Burnett ranks 41st in ERA at 4.61, 43rd in FIP at 4.59 (in other words, his ERA is a good indication of his pitching), and 33rd in ERA+ at 91. Those numbers best Hughes' season line if you include his stats from April, but that beleaguered palooka has been thankfully hard to spot since returning.

As I've pointed out before, even if you detach salary and emotion from the equation, it's tough to escape the conclusion that Burnett has been anything but the Yankees' sixth-best starter during the time that they've had all six available. While his overall numbers are still better than those of Hughes, the latter has been the better pitcher lately, if not quite the dominating force from the first couple of months of 2010. He has a 4.28 ERA in six starts (four quality) and one relief appearance since returning from the disabled list, with a 23/11 K/BB ratio and just two homers allowed. In five of those six starts, he's allowed just two runs. During that same span, Burnett has a 5.85 ERA in eight starts, with a 46/22 K/BB ratio and eight homers allowed in 47.2 innings. Give each a mulligan for their 4.1-inning, seven-run starts, and the ERAs drop to 2.76 for Hughes (with an even better 19/8 K/BB) and 5.23 for Burnett (still with a 43/22 K/BB).

Yet it still feels as though the brass has already decided that Hughes will be the one sent to the bullpen if there's culling to be done, which not only feels like a waste given the team's efforts to restore him to working order, but the latest example of the goalposts being moved when it comes to homegrown talent (see: Chamberlian, Joba; Monero, Jesus). Things may change depending upon how long it takes for Garcia's finger to heal; the cut, suffered in some kind of kitchen accident, is inhibiting his grip on his splitter, without which, he's a sitting duck. Girardi has yet to announce a starter for Friday against the Twins, with Hughes and Burnett lined up to pitch Saturday and Sunday. Lather, rinse, repeat — we're going through this cycle at least one more time.