There's always a bit of skepticism surrounding a soon-to-be 32-year-old starting pitcher coming off a signature season in a contract year. This certainly explains the current fantasy baseball perception of starter A.J. Burnett, who recently inked a five-year deal with the New York Yankees after excelling with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2008.
Though his 4.07 ERA was his first of more than 4.00 in a full season since 2001, the strikeout artist reached a single-year summit in that department with 231 in a career-high 34 starts and 221 1/3 frames of work. He was able to display his hard fastball and a back-breaking curveball without interruption last year.
The problem: He has reached the 200-inning plateau just three times in his major league career. Was money the true motivator, or should fantasy baseball players expect this trend to continue? An injury magnet most of his career, Burnett is arguably one of the more intriguing cases of the 2009 fantasy baseball draft season.
An erratic 2008
The righty experienced many peaks and valleys in his 2008 game logs. In 10 of his 34 starts, Burnett gave up zero or one earned run. On the flip side, he had 11 outings of four or more earned runs allowed.
His ERAs in May (3.43), July (3.86) and September (1.82) stand out, while those in April (6.07), June (5.06) and August (4.43) hindered his performance. Despite his rough August, his 2.86 second-half ERA was punctuated by 105 K's in just 94 1/3 innings.
Including his 2008 campaign, Burnett has registered six seasons with at least 21 games started. In four of those he posted an average of at least 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings, including 9.6 and 9.4 in his last two seasons.
Except for three disastrous starts against the Baltimore Orioles (9.82 ERA), two of which he won anyway, he was serviceable against AL East opponents: 2-0 with a 2.60 ERA in 27 2/3 innings against the Boston Red Sox and 1-2 with a 3.15 ERA in 20 innings facing the Tampa Bay Rays.
The 'pen is equally mighty
Burnett benefited from a Toronto bullpen that was arguably the best in the majors last season - Jays relievers had a league-low 2.94 ERA, 44 saves (tied for seventh best), and the second lowest opponents' batting average (.226).
The Yankees 'pen, if its 2008 pattern holds, could help Burnett just as much. A maturing and improved setup crew helped aid ageless closer Mariano Rivera on its way to boasting the seventh best ERA (3.79), the third best batting average against (.235) and the most strikeouts (523).
At the park
Unfortunately, Yankee Stadium is a bit more hitter-friendly than the Rogers Centre, especially for left-handed batters. This trend hasn't seemed to bother Burnett throughout the years. Through 25 career innings in the Bronx, he has posted a 2.88 ERA, a 1.12 WHIP, a .227 batting average against and 19 strikeouts. Lefties have hit for a combined .245 clip against Burnett over his career, so it's not like they are torching him, either.
The Bombers have improved their offense, which appeared sluggish last season due to injuries and a low average with runners in scoring position, through the signing of first baseman Mark Teixeira (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim). The traditionally strong Yankees lineup should return to effectiveness to give Burnett some more run support. When he was the pitcher of record, Burnett was tied for the 17th lowest average run support per nine innings pitched (5.73) among the 89 pitchers with at least 160 frames thrown last year. The Yankees defense, however, is considered one of the shoddiest in the league, even with the acquisition of Teixeira.
A look at Burnett's history should cause some concern. The seasons following his previous 200-inning campaigns both resulted in time missed due to injury. In 2003, he accumulated just 23 innings before succumbing to Tommy John surgery. In 2006, he missed about two months of action due to elbow problems.
Does he break down after long seasons? Fantasy owners should be wary of his contract year; he threw his most single-season innings in order to make a big paycheck. Burnett's disconcerting pattern of output following big workloads should be at the front of your mind when opting to select him.
Burnett's mechanics don't ease fantasy minds, either. He doesn't have a very long stride in his windup, but his arm action is a little perturbing. He whips his wrist around rapidly as he cocks his arm to throw, which puts more strain on his entire forearm.
Burnett has displayed what scouts call the "Inverted W" and "Inverted L" windup forms when he enters the part of his throwing motion aimed to bring power into his pitches. These warning signs often breed problems for both the shoulder and the elbow over time.
Note that Burnett's main injury troubles have stemmed from his throwing elbow....
Fantasy baseball outlook
Burnett should be at best a weak No. 2 fantasy pitcher, but he's a much safer high-end No. 3 hurler. When in peak physical condition, his breaking stuff ranks among the best in the game.
If your draft plan forces you to take Burnett as a No. 2, you must build up your pitching depth to back him up. He has yet to prove he's an innings eater, and he might be in store for some more arm maladies after the longest season of his career.
Remember, Burnett is an erratic pitcher, but if you draft him, you might as well start him each time out because of the upside he offers. He has an electric arm, but those who select him should also remember that another year marred with injury time wouldn't be shocking.
About Tim Heaney
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum, who competes in the prestigious LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.
He appears frequently, including every Sunday, on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, as well as every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.
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