The Yankees made a huge investment in their starting rotation this week, reaching agreements with pitcher C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett on a pair of lucrative, long-term contracts.
But while the acquisition for Sabathia for seven years, $161 million dollars includes all of the necessary upside such an expensive deal should provide while addressing a clear need, the five years and $82 million New York handed to Burnett does neither of these things. Meanwhile, the reasons to believe that Sabathia is a good bet for a long-term contract are missing from Burnett’s profile.
In short, this week the Yankees failed to differ between a good pitching contract and a bad one—and the misused resources could well come back to haunt them.
Many of the reasons to support a Sabathia deal are obvious. He has posted seasons of 143 and 162 ERA+ in 2007-2008, with a tremendous strikeout rate and microscopic walk rate.
Burnett, meanwhile, pitched to a good 119 ERA+ in 2007 in a partial season, while his 2008 ERA+ dropped to just 105, too close to league average for the money he’ll be making.
Those often-partial seasons of Burnett are another difference between the two pitchers. Sabathia threw 241 innings in 2007, leaving some observers to worry that his effectiveness could suffer due to overuse. He responded by pitching 253 innings in 2008, lowering his ERA by half a run, and saw his strikeout rate rise precipitously.
On the other hand, Burnett threw more than 165 innings just twice in the past six years. He’s only thrown more than 200 innings three times in his career. The first time, he tossed 23 innings the following season—the second time, 135 2/3 innings. Obviously, neither total is sufficient for a member of the rotation, let alone one making $16 million per season.
Age also makes Sabathia’s deal a good bet, and Burnett’s a poor one. The seasons covered by Sabathia’s deal are mainly in-prime ones—he’ll be just 27 when he makes the Opening Day 2009 start for New York. A seven-year deal means the Yankees have Sabathia until he’s 33. Burnett, by contrast, will be 32 on Opening Day, meaning that New York will owe him $16 million per season until he’s 36. Considering that the injury-prone don’t tend to become healthier as they age, this can’t be seen as a good thing.
But arguably the biggest difference between the two decisions is that while Sabathia is irreplaceable, Sabathia’s signing makes Burnett superfluous at best. The Yankees badly needed an ace who could provide a large number of innings, which is Sabathia’s resume exactly. Joba Chamberlain slots in nicely as a number two, but he is an ace-quality performer who has yet to prove he can give New York 200 innings. Chien-Ming Wang is a solid number three, while Andy Pettitte, who is likely to return, is a good bet to be a better-than-average number 4.
This leaves Burnett as a hugely overqualified fifth starter. But with Pettitte now 36 and Wang and Chamberlain coming off of injuries, the Yankees needed to guarantee innings on the back end of the rotation, not gamble on high-risk excellence.
The signing of Burnett leads to two other potential problems. One is that $16 million per season could have gone a long way toward improving an offense that declined from outstanding in 2007 to merely good in 2008, and is counting on too many older players to be certain of 2009 production. Rather than signing Burnett, the Yankees could have grabbed Mark Teixeira, or likely any two of Adam Dunn, Pat Burrell or Milton Bradley. All four players are Burnett’s age or younger, and all four, to varying degrees, address New York’s biggest problem with Sabathia in the fold: offensive upside.
The move also probably closes the door on opportunities for New York’s prized pitching prospects Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, and the underrated Alfredo Aceves. The Yankees, who seemed determined a season ago to build around those pitchers, will be left without a rotation spot once Pettitte re-signs. Either those pitchers waste away in AAA, or New York will turn to them once Burnett gets injured, and pay $16 million for the privilege of watching their young pitchers perform. Given Burnett’s fragility, New York can’t very well deal the young pitchers for offense—the backup plan is needed.
The week was an epic one for the Yankees. In C.C. Sabathia, the team undid the mistakes of the recent past which saw them pass on elite players Johan Santana and Carlos Beltran to fill positional needs. But A.J. Burnett seems to be a return to the unsuccessful late-1980s New York model, of overpaying veterans whose success is questionable at best.