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Happy Birthday: A.J. Burnett

By Sal Maiorana

January 2024


Sal Maiorana, a friend of the site, shares some of his thoughts on the Yankees.

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All it took was one season out of the MLB postseason - after having qualified 13 years in a row during which the Yankees won six AL pennants and four World Series - for George Steinbrenner to blow a gasket.

In 2007, the Yankees saw their nine-year stranglehold on the AL East come to an end at the hands of the hated Red Sox, and though they earned a wild-card berth, Joe Torre’s final team got drummed out in four games by Cleveland. And then in 2008, Joe Girardi’s first season as manager and the last in old Yankee Stadium, came the real indignity for Steinbrenner as the Yankees fell to 83-79 and did not make it to the postseason.

That was unacceptable so in the winter of 2008-09, the aging Boss who, even in declining health still had bite to his bark, threw open his checkbook and gave general manager Brian Cashman one edict: Fix this mess!

Marching orders in hand, Cashman dominated the free agent signing period with three of the biggest offseason splashes in MLB as he signed free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira for $180 million, pitcher CC Sabathia for $161 million, and pitcher A.J. Burnett for $82.5 million.

We know that Teixeira and Sabathia went on to become all-time great Yankees and they played major roles in New York returning to the top of the mountain by winning the 2009 World Series. Burnett did not become an all-time great and wound up playing only three of the five years he signed for in the Bronx before being traded for basically nothing after the 2011 season.

Though he proved to be a disappointing signing, he nonetheless contributed mightily to what remains the Yankees’ last championship. That season Burnett made 33 starts and though he battled control issues and led the AL in walks with 97, he battled his way to a respectable 13-9 record and 4.04 ERA across 207 innings as the Yankees went 103-59 and ran away with the AL East.

He then made five starts in the postseason, three of which were excellent - Game 2 of the division series against the Twins, Game 2 of the ALCS against the Angels, and then Game 2 of the World Series against the Phillies when he got credit for the win by allowing just one earned run in seven innings with nine strikeouts.

Thereafter, it did not go well for Burnett in New York. In his final two seasons he went a combined 21-26 in 65 starts, his ERA ballooned to 5.20 and his continued wildness led to an unseemly WHIP of 1.472 so the Yankees decided to move on, and in a weird sort of way, his trade to the Pirates paid dividends years later.

In 2013, his second season with Pittsburgh, one of the Pirates top prospects made his MLB debut: Pitcher Gerrit Cole. And in Burnett, Cole found a mentor, someone who had been in the majors since 1999 and was a World Series champion, and Burnett happily took him under his wing.

“When Gerrit came up, I remember his stuff was so good yet it wasn’t refined yet,” Burnett told The Athletic back in 2020, the year Cole signed as a free agent with the Yankees. “He was still searching for a strikeout pitch. He knew what he was capable of. He was in my back pocket all day in spring training and during the season. It’s nice that I’ve rubbed off on him in that way. He took such big strides and it seems like overnight he became a stud.

“He’s got the same mentality I had. He’s got a little bit better stuff - just a little bit because he has a slider — but it’s the same stuff I had coming up. I had a better curveball at the time. We both threw hard. He was fun to be around. He was all right.”

Yeah he was, and still is, and now Cole is the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner. And if even a little reason for his success as a Yankee had to do with the Burnett’s early tutoring, then maybe we give Burnett a pass for not living up to his 2009 free agent contract.

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