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Lights Out, Everybody! Lights Out, Eastern Europe, Burnett, and Teixeira!

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I am one of those lucky chaps that Hurricane Irene has left without electricity, so I’m literally in the dark this week--if you tell me that Nick Swisher has been traded for a pack of Barbary Apes, I would have to believe you, credulous fellow that I am. Go ahead, put it in the comments, I dare you. I’ll break down the deal in my next post. Please specify the handedness of the apes, as the Yankees are under the impression they need help in the bullpen.

I spent much of the last two days forcibly off line, reading Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin with a flashlight (full disclosure: a publisher I‘m working with supplied me with a review copy). The thesis: if you lived in Poland, Belorussia, the Ukraine, or the Baltic States between 1932 and 1945 you had not one but two insane dictators trying to kill you, and if one didn’t get you on the first pass, the other likely would on the second, or the third, or fourth. Thus, you were, pardon the expression, screwed. Not only did the bulk of the Holocaust take place in these areas, but also Stalin’s Great Terror as well as his collectivization schemes and intentional and unintentional famines. Some of these countries were occupied three and four times during the period, and each time a plot of land changed hands, the murdering thugs who worked for each regime would sluice in behind the armies and start a new round of ethnic cleansing, getting whoever the previous landlords had missed. Stalin, who had access to these areas for years before Hitler got his mitts on them, gave himself a bloody head start on the whole business.

It’s a very good book, if occasionally repetitious in the writing, and essential reading even if you’ve saturated yourself with books about World War II. It pulls back the camera to show the full extent of the historic tragedy that befell that area. The Jews got the worst of it by far, but non-Jews were far from safe, and if you were, say, an ethnic Pole who happened to live in the Ukraine, or simply a peasant of any heritage who lived in a district that didn’t meet its grain quota, or you had the misfortune to reside in some out-of-the-way town that the SS selected at random to be exterminated in "reprisal" for something you had nothing to do with, or simply happened to raise your hand in support of something Stalin was in favor of yesterday that he wasn’t in favor of today, the axe could fall on you at any time.

The sheer hopelessness, the Kafkaesque madness that inevitably consumed so many innocent people, is tough to cope with as you read the book, and it probably would have been smarter of me to digest it in small chunks during daylight than in 100-page stretches under blackout conditions given that there is not much to distract you from a real-world terror more frightening than anything you can find in a horror movie, but we have a duty to learn well, remember, and pass the information on to the next generation. And so I read on.

Here is a tough segue, going from immortal crimes to pennant-race pitching, but if you can handle the whiplash than so can I. This is something I’ve been wondering since before the lights went out: After A.J. Burnett’s start against the Orioles, Joe Girardi reiterated that because of the upcoming doubleheaders, the Yankees required six starting pitchers and therefore he had to stick with Burnett. The pitcher, who has an ERA of 7.79 over his last ten starts, has a career ERA of over 5.00 against Boston and over 6.00 at Fenway Park, but he’ll be given a start there Thursday. I guess both figures are better than what he’s done recently--that’s looking at the glass as half full while also holding your breath and standing on your head.

What I keep asking is this: okay, the schedule said you needed six guys for a period of time. Why does it have to be these six guys? If one of them is underperforming, why can’t someone else get into the mix? Regardless of if you think that Hector Noesi or any of the guys at Scranton are future aces or #5 starters, if they’re going to be anything at all with the words "major league pitcher" in them, they’re going to have to pitch to a better ERA than 7.79, a lot better. Burnett has set a very low bar here by pitching at a level nearly four runs worse than the league-average pitcher. If one of the kids can come closer to that mark than he can, the team will have improved itself. If a kid comes up and allows four runs in five innings, that’s still better than Burnett has done lately. If he allows three runs in five innings, he’s been more than two runs better. Anything can happen in a single start, but if you don’t think that, on average, Manny Banuelos (who threw a seven-inning one-hitter last night), or Adam Warren, or any of the kids at Scranton this side of Andrew Brackman can’t come in under a 7.79 ERA in the majors then what the heck are they in the organization for?

To retreat to the 1930s for a moment, albeit in a more benign aspect, when it comes to young pitchers, the Yankees have nothing to fear but fear itself. What they should be afraid of is wasting anymore time on a pitcher whose last run of consistent success was in 2009. Look at what patience with Ivan Nova has brought them. He’s not an ace now and is unlikely to be one in the future, but in the same two-month period that has seen Burnett go off the rails he has gone 7-0 with a 3.40 ERA. If only the Yankees were less patient with Burnett and less leery of their own youngsters, they might be well on their way to seeing that there is more of the same where Nova came from.

Saw mention of a writer ripping Mark Teixeira because he’s hitting only .251--apparently the 35 home runs and 68 walks don’t get to contribute when deciding if he’s having a good year or not. If I recall correctly, the complaint was that Texieira, having hit .256 last year as well, is no longer the .290 hitter he was through 2008. Maybe so, though I suspect the shift has a lot to do with that--Teixeira’s batting average on balls in play has been unnaturally low this year and last--and he still does a lot of other things well, which brings us to this: in a season of 600 at-bats, the difference between hitting .250 and .290 is exactly 24 hits. Given all the things Teixeira can do--hit from authority from both sides of the plate, take a walk, and display great reflexes on defense--is it truly reasonable to ask the Yankees to show buyer’s remorse over a loss of 24 hits, particularly when you would be hard-pressed to say that Teixeira has lost any power? No, I don’t think so either.