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Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Updated: February 16, 9:26 AM ET
Finding it a bit hard to buy into Burnett

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- A.J. Burnett claims his horrendous 2010 season is ancient history, about as relevant to his future, and that of his team's, as watching Joe DiMaggio's Yankeeography would be to determining what kind of 2011 season Curtis Granderson will have.

"Last year is last year," Burnett said. "It's over."

AJ Burnett
A.J. Burnett blamed his problems in 2010 on "listening to too many people" and "maybe not listening enough." New pitching coach Larry Rothschild has his work cut out for him.

He also said, "I don't need to be fixed," insisted, "I'm not worried," and dutifully repeated that ballplayer's catchall, "I'll be fine," which could mean anything from "I intend to win the Cy Young" to "At least my ATM card still works."

If only it were that easy for Yankees fans to turn the page on, and turn a blind eye toward, one of the worst seasons a starting pitcher has ever had in pinstripes, a season that may well have cost them a second straight trip to the World Series.

From June 5 on, Burnett was so bad his manager hesitated to use him. He was so bad he did not make the postseason rotation for the first round of playoffs and only made a start in the second round because the alternative was a rookie with all of 42 major-league innings on his resume.

He is still owed nearly $50 million with three more seasons left on his contract, and with Andy Pettitte back home on the ranch, is every bit as vital to the success of the 2011 Yankees as he was detrimental to the fortunes of the 2010 Yankees.

And yet, here he is, 34 years old, a 13-year-veteran and a pitcher who was signed to be the No. 2 starter in the Yankees rotation saying, "I didn't realize how important I was to this team last year."

Hopefully, that was just something glib and funny Burnett prepared for what he knew would be a minor media circus, his first Q&A since the end of last season and everything that has happened and not happened (remember when Cliff Lee was going to make us all forget Burnett was even on the staff?) in between.

Because nothing A.J. Burnett said in his 15-minute chat session following a 45-pitch bullpen session Tuesday morning inspired any kind of confidence that he has got this thing licked, or even knows where to begin on it.

I understand that in this overheated media environment, we sometimes put way too much emphasis on what athletes say and not enough on what they do. I also recognize that among professional athletes, there are differing degrees of articulation and introspection and self-knowledge, and that Allan James Burnett from Little Rock, Ark., may be at the lower end of that spectrum.

I like the guy, find him candid and funny, but not particularly reflective. Still, even he could have done better than to come in here and admit he spent all of "like a day" thinking about what went wrong in 2010. You would think a season as colossally bad as that might require, like, maybe a week of soul-searching. Some guys would have torn themselves up about it all winter.

In fact, Burnett did not even devote an entire day to examining his failure of last season. More like the time it took to fly from Arlington, where the season ended in ruins, to New York, where Burnett's hunting season began in relative peace.

"I thought about it on the flight home," he said. "And by the time we landed, I realized I didn't do anything [all season]. Pitched one game in the postseason. I mean, what's going on? That's not what I came here to do. I came here to win, I came here to pitch, I came here to be behind the big man, and I didn't do any of that last year. You look back and I wasn't really a factor."

And then? "And then I was done with it," he said. "It got me depressed every time I thought about it. So I just stopped thinking about it."

If only it were the same for you. Or me.

But it's not. A.J. Burnett is still a vital part of this Yankees rotation, a rotation that now consists of CC, Phil and the Iron Mikes. And Burnett believes, and would have you believe, that all he needs to do is block last year out of his mind and it is as if it never happened.

"It's a matter of staying on top of my game, paying attention to every pitch and doing what I did before last year, which is not let anything bother me," he said, as if remaining focused on one's work was a concept that had never occurred to him before. "You know, not worry about a thing, go out there one pitch at a time until skip takes me out. If I do that, I'll be fine."

Again, easier said than done. Much easier, especially for a guy who tried to punch out a clubhouse door after one semi-rocky half-inning against the Tampa Bay Rays in July.

There were other disturbing things, as well, notably Burnett's choice to blame some of his problems on "listening to too many people." And "maybe not listening enough." Saying that if he had the chance to do it over again, he probably wouldn't listen to anybody, a line which might give new pitching coach Larry Rothschild a sleepless night or two. And acknowledging the obvious, which is that his confidence level rose -- and mostly fell -- in direct proportion to his success on the mound.

You came away from it wondering if Burnett realizes just how bad he was last season, or if he really has any clue of how to be better this season.

On the plus side, everyone agrees Burnett was healthy all last season, and the radar gun attests to the fact that he can still throw hard. And, knowing that this would be the Spring of A.J. Burnett, he at least came into camp in good physical shape, unlike another pitcher under the spotlight, Joba Chamberlain, who appears to have come to camp having added every pound CC Sabathia lost, and then some.

But even Rothschild, a thoughtful, reserved type who spent one whole day talking to Burnett and another working with him at his home in Maryland this winter, seemed unsure of what Burnett's real problem was.

"It's the old chicken and egg question," Rothschild said. "Is the confidence there because of success or is success there because he's doing things right mechanically and gets confidence?"

Rothschild's plan of attack is to work on Burnett's mechanics in the hope that will breed success, which in turn will promote confidence. I know, it's been tried before.

But really, what else is there to do? You ask the manager and he tells you he believes in Burnett. So does the GM. But neither of them has a reason any more concrete than the one Brian Cashman owned up to after Burnett's bullpen session Tuesday: "Because I need him."

So do the Yankees. Badly.

It is something that, to listen to Burnett, he just realized himself. So now that he knows that, and having reflected upon it for a suitable length of time, he'll make it happen this year. Just like that.

A.J. Burnett makes it sound so easy to do.

Why, then, is it so difficult to believe?