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Saturday, March 19, 2011
Updated: March 20, 2:55 PM ET
A.J. as No. 2 is better than alternative

By Wallace Matthews

TAMPA, Fla. -- There is not a single player on the New York Yankees' roster who is going to have more of an influence on the eventual outcome of the team's 2011 season than A.J. Burnett.

Neither Alex Rodriguez nor Derek Jeter nor Robby Cano nor CC Sabathia nor even Mariano Rivera will have as much of a say in whether there is a parade, or even October baseball, than the talented, erratic, psychologically fragile and oftentimes maddening 6-foot-5 bundle of tattoos and contradictions that is Allan James Burnett.

And it was that fragility, more than his talent or his qualifications this spring, that caused Joe Girardi to designate Burnett his No. 2 starter Saturday.

A.J. Burnett
A.J. Burnett can look forward to his first start of the season, April 2 at the Stadium.

Certainly, he didn't pitch like a No. 2 last season, when he went 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA and so lost the faith of his manager that he was removed from the rotation for the ALDS against the Twins.

And while Burnett has had a slightly better spring than No. 3 starter Phil Hughes, how many times have we heard Girardi, and just about every manager, GM and player in baseball, say that they put very little stock into spring training numbers, especially for established major leaguers?

From the beginning of spring training, Girardi has followed his ace, Sabathia, in the rotation with Hughes. And for more than a week now, the manager has been asked on a daily basis to officially announce the hierarchy of his starting staff.

And every day, he has promised to do so -- and then reneged with a variation of "I'll tell you tomorrow."

Well, tomorrow came Saturday, coincidentally the day after Burnett's worst outing of the spring.

"A.J. two, Phil three," Girardi said. "That was our plan all along."

Sure it was. Only when asked to explain why it took his so long just to say so, and why he kept pushing off the announcement of something that was supposedly a fait accompli since the end of the 2010 ALCS, Girardi got bogged down in some mumbo-jumbo about scheduling and rest, finally pushing it all off on his new pitching coach, Larry Rothschild.

Finally, in answer to a direct question, Girardi acknowledged the obvious: That to drop Burnett a notch in the rotation might have been as damaging as dropping an anvil on his fragile psyche.

"That could affect him," Girardi conceded. "I'm not sure that it would, but it could. And you never know how a guy's gonna react to something until you do it. I mean, you can't predict what it's gonna do, but our plan all along was to have A.J. as our No. 2 starter."

In fairness, Burnett is going to be around here for a long time, three more seasons, and collect a lot of money, $16.5 million per. The only Yankees who make more money than him are named Alex, CC, Tex and Derek.

So it's in the Yankees' interests, both practical and financial, to keep Burnett happy and feeling loved, and if this is what it takes, so what?

The only difference between being the No. 2 and the No. 3 starter is that Burnett will pitch Saturday, April 2, against the Tigers at Yankee Stadium rather than Sunday, April 3.

That, and the ego boost of knowing your manager and GM consider you the second-best starter on the team, or the ego blow of being demoted to No. 3.

And if a happy and secure Burnett is a more effective Burnett, that could be the difference between a successful Yankees season (28th World Series championship) and a failure (any other outcome).

The process of bolstering Burnett's ego began Friday, when Burnett and Girardi both put forth the hypothesis that his outing against the Blue Jays was in fact more impressive than the numbers indicated.

In fact, it was exactly what the numbers -- 4 IP, 5 H, 4 R (2 ER), 5 K, 1 HR, 1 WP and 1 HB -- indicated.

Some nasty stuff, swing-and-miss stuff, notably his curveball, which dove for the dirt but still had hitters flailing at it.

Some eminently hittable pitches, especially the sinker that curled back into Jose Molina's hitting zone and wound up in the parking lot.

And some wildness, although not so much that he walked anyone -- in fact, Burnett hasn't walked a batter in 13 spring innings -- and enough unpredictability that his new catcher, Russell Martin, spent so much time sprawling onto the field that Girardi, who originally had Martin in the lineup Saturday, thought better of it and gave him a day off to recuperate.

Leave it to Brian Cashman, the man who signed Burnett to this deal the Yankees must now live and, they hope, thrive with, to peel the sugarcoating off it.

"It was obviously his toughest performance of the spring, but he battled," Cashman said Saturday. He's had a heck of a spring. Yesterday was really the first hiccup. He's working on the adjustments he's made with Larry. I'm excited about the spring he's had so far in spite of yesterday's outing. He knows how important he is to us."

And the Yankees know how important Burnett is to them. Cliff Lee, who they had penciled in for 20 wins this offseason, took those wins to Philadelphia instead. Andy Pettitte, who won 11 for them before last year's All-Star break, took his wins home to Texas. Hughes won 18 games last year and the Yankees need the same or close from him this year. Ivan Nova has a ton of potential, but still only 42 major league innings and one major league win. The No. 5 job is probably going to go to a guy who hasn't pitched in the big leagues in 18 months.

So yeah, A.J. Burnett is important to them. In fact, he's more than important. He's vital.

And if allowing him to have the baseball one day before they hand it to Phil Hughes is going to make a difference, then by all means, do it.

For 13 years now, the only thing standing between A.J Burnett and superstardom has been the thing between his ears, the thing he uses to worry with.

By continuing to keep him No. 2, the Yankees gave Burnett's mind one less thing to worry about.