The Yankees prepare to rid themselves of A.J. Burnett, but for what?
Their motivations are perfectly understandable; at this point, he's a back-of-the-rotation starter who's earning $16.5 million a year.
But it's far from clear that the path they intend to take—trade Burnett to the Pittsburgh Pirates, pick up roughly $23-25 million of Burnett's remaining $33 million contract, and get some mediocre prospects in return—will help the team all that much.
With the savings, the Yankees intend to sign a left-handed designated hitter to serve as bench depth. Which sounds reasonable, but for the details: Raul Ibanez has been consistently connected to the Yankees in rumors from reliable places, and if the Yankees intend to spend anything close to the savings they'll get from Burnett on Ibanez, they're crazier than they were to sign Burnett in the first place.
Ibanez turns 40 in June, and posted an OPS of .707 for the Phillies last year, playing his home games in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park. Between fielding rests for Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira, along with at-bats for Andruw Jones, what few DH at-bats might be available for Ibanez would be against right-handed pitching. But even against righties, Ibanez posted an OPS of just .747. Against lefties, it was a putrid .585.
The other relatively expensive DH options aren't particularly inspiring, either. With Johnny Damon looking for more at-bats than he'll get with the Yankees, Hideki Matsui is another familiar face. But Matsui appeared to be past his sell-by date with Oakland last year as well, with an OPS of just .654 against righties. The other boldfaced names—Vladimir Guerrero, Magglio Ordonez and Manny Ramirez—are all right-handed, and carry significant performance questions, too.
To be sure, the Yankees can elect to trade Burnett and hold onto the money as well, or spend it more wisely in the draft. But imagine an alternative scenario, in which the Yankees keep Burnett but banish him to long relief.
Yes, the Yankees have six pitchers who currently feature ahead of Burnett on the depth chart: CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Hideki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia. Leaving aside that pitchers carry increased risk, period, the Yankees are counting on Pineda and Nova to repeat their breakout performances, Kuroda to show no signs of his age—he'll be 37—Phil Hughes to bounce back, and Freddy Garcia to stay healthy. Not all of this needs to go right, but it is far from certain that even most of it will.
To be sure, this is true of every pitching staff in baseball, only more so. But in Burnett, the Yankees have at least a marginal starter, based on his three seasons in New York. An extra insurance policy against the kind of attrition experienced by the Boston Red Sox last season, for example, seems like it might come in handy.
It is possible to be over-insured. But to give that up for the kind of mediocrities the Yankees could sign instead hardly seems worth it.
On the other hand, if a better use for that money does come along, or the pitchers all stay healthy—they are the Yankees, after all, and such things tend to happen in the Bronx—the rest of the league will be just as desperate for pitching as it is now.
There is likely to be a market in June for the Yankees' spare starter, just as surely as there is now. At the cost of missing out on Raul Ibanez and some unspectacular prospects, the Yankees ought to find out if they can make some use of Burnett after all.