Commentary

Paycheck, not performance, saves A.J.

Nova, Hughes battle for spot in Yanks' rotation high-priced Burnett can't seem to lose

Updated: August 4, 2011, 8:40 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

CHICAGO -- During the same week Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, two young, talented and hungry pitchers, are locked in a one-on-one struggle for one spot in the Yankees' starting rotation, A.J. Burnett seems to have the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card.

"A.J.'s starting for us [next] Wednesday," Joe Girardi said.

So that's that.

[+] EnlargeAJ Burnett
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesA.J. Burnett is making too much money to lose his job to Phil Hughes or Ivan Nova -- even if it looks as if he's throwing it away.

A.J.'s in, and either Hughes or Nova are going to be out. It's a simple numbers game, but not the one you might think (you know, six pitchers and only five slots).

No, the numbers game that beats Hughes and Nova every time is the one that involves their paychecks. Nova is making the major league minimum and Hughes is making $2.7 million, the Yankees equivalent of ashtray money.

Burnett is owed more than $5 million for the rest of this year, and another $33 million for the two years left on his contract.

And there's no way anyone else is going to relieve the Yankees of that burden. You can put Burnett on waivers or leave him out with the recyclables for anyone to pick up. You can hang him upside down by his heels in the middle of Times Square.

No one is going to take him, and either he is going to pitch out the remainder of his deal or Brian Cashman is going to be force-fed that $33 million either straight or with a chaser.

"His numbers aren't that bad," Girardi said. "If you look at the numbers of Hughes, he's made one good start. If you look at the whole year, A.J.'s been decent for us. I think he's been a much better pitcher for us this year."

We'll get to that in detail in a moment.

All you need to know about how good Burnett has been this season is to understand that on a bizarre night in which the Yankees' offense began with a pair of bunts and ended up with 23 hits and 18 runs on the scoreboard, the real story is the tale of the $82.5 million pitcher who was staked to a 12-run lead and still couldn't manage to get himself a win.

"It's frustrating," Burnett said. "But I'm not gonna beat myself up over it."

That's OK, because there are no doubt plenty of Yankees fans who would volunteer to do it for him.

Just five days ago, Burnett pitched well enough to win -- five hits, four runs and 10 strikeouts against the Orioles -- but took the loss when the Yankees' offense let him down.

Wednesday night, the team repaid Burnett back in multiples, scoring four times before he got off the bench to pitch the first inning, twice more in the second, and a whopping seven times in the third.

And here was A.J. Burnett in the fourth, hanging a curveball to Carlos Quentin for a three-run jack, and giving up RBI singles to Juan Pierre and Brent Morel to make a rout suddenly too close for comfort.

And when he gave up three smoking hits, including an RBI double to A.J. Pierzynski in the fifth, Girardi -- who did his best to hide his simmering rage from the postgame media but couldn't conceal it from the TV cameras -- came out to get him. Thank goodness one of them had the hook, because Burnett certainly didn't.

And still, Burnett was defiant, striding off the mound before Girardi could get there, rather insolently slapping the ball into the manager's hand, and tearing off his uniform shirt in the tunnel leading to the clubhouse.

"I was angry at myself," Burnett said.

"Angry at himself," Girardi agreed.

"I was frustrated," Burnett said, for like the 50th time.

Problem was, he didn't look a bit frustrated. He did his entire postgame interview with that wry, sheepish grin he adopts after a tough loss.

He even made a little joke: "Did I walk anybody? Then that's a positive."

And he repeated the same tired lines about "being an important part of this team," and "needing to get better," and of course, promising that he will get better. In five days. As always.

In the meantime, he laid the groundwork for the next Yankees controversy when he tried to blame some of his failure on "some [predictable] pitch sequences," which is a subtle way of blaming his catcher.

And interestingly enough, Russell Martin seemed to take Burnett's wretched performance a lot more personally than Burnett did himself.

"I was disappointed in myself that I couldn't get him through five innings with that lead," Martin said. "He's the one throwing the ball, I know, but that's why I'm not smiling that much now, because I kinda felt if there was any game to get him a win and get him back on track, this was it."

In fact, other than Burnett, there was plenty for the Yankees to smile about. Every starter in the Yankees' lineup had at least one hit and scored at least one run.

Derek Jeter had a five-hit game (his second of the season), scored four times, knocked in two runs and raised his average to a more than respectable .280. Curtis Granderson had four hits, including a double and triple, and five RBIs. Robbie Cano had a home run (No. 17) and four RBIs. Eric Chavez had three hits, including his first home run since May 2010. Brett Gardner had three hits, was on base four times and scored every time.

The Yankees took Gavin Floyd, one of the most effective pitchers in baseball since the All-Star break, and ran him out of U.S. Cellular Field in less than three innings.

But the lingering question is: What to do with Burnett?

In fairness, Burnett has had some tough luck this year, and in some categories has pitched better than he did in his disastrous 2010. To this point of the season, he has pitched more innings (142.2 versus 126), allowed fewer hits (129 versus 136) and struck out more batters (123 versus 96).

But he has also walked more (63, 54), surrendered more home runs (21, 16) and exactly a year after he sported a 9-9 record and 4.93 ERA, the numbers are 8-9 and 4.55.

If there has been improvement in Burnett, it is incremental at best, and Wednesday night's debacle felt more like a regression than an aberration.

"I need to be better," Burnett said. "And I'm going to be better."

We've heard that before, and you know what? It doesn't really matter. A.J. Burnett is going to pitch next Wednesday, and five days after that and five days after that.

Meanwhile, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova will pitch their hearts out to win a job that Burnett can't seem to lose, no matter how hard he tries.

NOTES: On the bright side, the bullpen was outstanding. Cory Wade, Luis Ayala and Rafael Soriano combined for 4 2/3 innings, allowing just one hit. … Jeter moved past Lou Brock into 23rd place on the all-time hits list with 3,027. … Chavez's four RBIs were his most since May 2007 versus Kansas City while an Oakland A. … Granderson has hit .538 (7-for-13) in the first three games of this series. … Gardner's four runs scored were a career high. He also stole his 19th consecutive base. … Nova (9-4, 4.01) closes the show here in Chicago versus RHP Phil Humber (8-7, 3.44) on Thursday night, first pitch at 8:10 p.m.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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