Burnett the ultimate high-risk, high-reward

December, 12, 2008
12/12/08
10:54
PM ET

Insert economy-related Yankees joke here.

Haven't we heard them all by this point? We get it, the Yankees still have oodles of money. They're moving into a new ballpark. They didn't make the playoffs last season. They want to next season. They're going to spend. Through the nose. So should we really be all that shocked that, on Friday afternoon, they added another high-priced arm to their stable of starters, inking A.J. Burnett to a five-year, $82.5 million contract?

Burnett slides right in as the Yankees' new No. 2 starter -- or perhaps No. 3, depending on how the team slots Chien-Ming Wang -- behind CC Sabathia, who announced his intentions to sign on as their new ace two days ago. With a top three of Sabathia, Burnett and Wang, the Yankees are in considerably better shape than they were to close the 2008 season, when they were relying on names such as Carl Pavano and Sidney Ponson to fill out their rotation. Yes, the Yankees have addressed their primary weakness of a year ago, and they've spent a fortune doing so.

A.J. BurnettRon Vesely/Getty ImagesA.J. Burnett easily set a career high by winning 18 games for the Blue Jays last season.

As an aside, they might not even be done; Derek Lowe, Andy Pettitte and Ben Sheets are reportedly candidates to be added as the No. 4 starter in the upcoming days.

Burnett can be quite the enigma. In eight full big league seasons, he has made 30-plus starts exactly twice; coincidentally, both of those came in contract years. (I'm figuring, of course, you'd have known he was destined to opt out of his deal with the Blue Jays this winter, an obvious assumption.) He has a Tommy John surgery on his résumé. But he also has a no-hitter, a World Series ring, an 18-win season and two 200-strikeout campaigns on that very same résumé. For his career, Burnett has been the ultimate boom-or-bust candidate.

People tend to focus on the negatives with Burnett. Fact is, he managed a 3.94 ERA, a 1.28 WHIP and more than a strikeout per inning (9.04 per nine, actually) in his three years in Toronto. But he also made only 80 starts in that time; Roy Halladay, by comparison, made 96. Burnett is a perennial injury risk, but for a guy who called the competitive American League East his home, he was pretty productive.

How might Burnett fare in New York? Wins won't be a problem for him, meaning a 30-start season equals at least 15, a good chance at a repeat of last year's 18 and an outside chance at 20. Plus, that he managed a combined 5-1 record, 2.05 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in nine starts combined against the Red Sox and Yankees in 2008 demonstrates his big-game ability. The New York spotlight, therefore, shouldn't really faze him. That's one thing that's probably less a risk factor with him than it is with fellow free-agent addition Sabathia.

Expect an ERA likely somewhere in the mid-to-high 3s and a strikeout per inning, statistics that would put a healthy starter well in the top 25 at his position. It's Burnett's injury risk, though -- the chance he might miss a dozen turns -- that diminishes his appeal. He placed 24th among starting pitchers on the 2008 Player Rater, and he might be a smarter choice in the No. 30 range on draft day accounting for that risk.

Make no mistake, though, if Burnett continues to slide in your draft past the top 25 starters, and you have the pitching depth to gamble on a guy with as good a chance to make 15 starts as 30, there's considerable upside here. Tremendous talent … but tremendous risk.

One interesting twist that might result from the Sabathia and Burnett additions (with one other probable signing to come): Joba Chamberlain now slots in as the Yankees' No. 5 starter, a role that by all rights could be won by former top prospect Phil Hughes in the spring. Should the Yankees either talk up Hughes as a serious rotation candidate or resume discussing using Chamberlain out of the bullpen to begin the season, take such comments more seriously than you might have two weeks ago.

I'm actually on board with Chamberlain working's as Mariano Rivera's set-up man, and I know I'm in the minority thinking that. That's more a concern about Chamberlain's long-term health and ability to endure 200-inning seasons than it is my suggesting it's a smarter strategy to use him for 75 innings than, say, 175. And this is clearly a guy who can help a fantasy team in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts even if a set-up role is what he lands in 2009.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.

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