Not sure what caused more shaking around here, this afternoon’s earthquake tremor or Brian Cashman saying that there are "no guarantees" that A.J. Burnett remains in the rotation after his next start. That’s quite the turnaround from Cashman’s last statement on Burnett, a rough translation of which sounded a lot like, "Leave poor A.J. alooooooooone!" And we’d love to, we really would. The problem is that while we would like every pitcher to age the way Andy Pettitte did, departing gracefully with something left in the tank, most of them don’t go that way. Burnett clearly retains some stuff, but it’s been two years and it is in no way jumping to conclusions to say that he can no longer command it. He’s 34; it happens. Could he reestablish his command and become a consistent pitcher again? Sure, to the extent that Burnett was ever consistent. Would you be wise to bet on that? Heck no.
Due to Burnett’s contract, the Yankees will be obligated to bet on it, and bet on it again, and keep betting on it through the end of the 2013 season. That doesn’t mean that each time they lose that bet they have to double down on misery. However Burnett is ultimately used, or not used, the money is spent.
The alternatives are still a mixed lot. Since coming off of the DL, Phil Hughes has put up a 3.70 ERA, but for the most part the strikeouts still haven’t been there, with just 25 in 41.1 innings. He’s clearly locating better and pitching with more aggression and better stuff, but he’s not yet a sure bet.
Ivan Nova is far more intriguing. If Nova qualified, his groundball-flyball ratio would rank fourth in the league, while his ratio of ground outs to air outs would rank third. If Mr. Sunburst has reinvented himself as a groundball pitcher, that would go a long way to changing our estimation of his chances for long-term success given his below-average strikeout rate. Ironically, over his last 10 starts he’s had a far higher strikeout rate than Hughes.
Whatever happens in the rotation, it’s time for the Yankees to stop fooling around with the likes of Aaron Laffey and Raul Valdes, the latter a pitcher with nothing in his history that suggests he can pitch at the big league level. It’s by no means clear that the Yankees actually need a second lefty in the pen given how well the corps has pitched as a whole—trying to squeeze another southpaw in there just for the sake of doing so is reminiscent of John Lennon’s like from "Watching the Wheels"—there are no problems, only solutions.
If the Yankees are truly determined to get this done, then it might be time to call up Manny Banuelos and let him pitch out of the bullpen for the last month of the season. Remember the massive impact David Price had in the same role at the end of the 2008 season, or the way Neftali Feliz debuted for the Rangers in 2009—that’s what the Yankees have to gain by ending the marginal tinkering and reaching for a real weapon. There really is no downside; if it doesn’t work, you leave Banuelos off the postseason roster. If it does work, Joe Girardi has a new toy and the team has gotten a head start on next year. Best of all: it would change the subject of discussion away from Burnett, something I think everybody wants.