The feverish headiness from opening day has subsided and it’s time for reality to set in.
Following the afterglow of (to channel Mike Francesa) “da blueprint comin’ ta life foah da Yankees”, today will be an important barometer of where this season is headed.
A.J. Burnett is pitching.
More so than the successful debut of Rafael Soriano or the “hot start” by Mark Teixeira (he homered on opening day in 2004 too—then was hitting .220 on June 1st), the key to the Yankees season is the enigmatic righty with the Hall of Fame stuff and journeyman results.
Burnett makes his season debut this afternoon against the Tigers and the argument could be made that no player in all of baseball carts his team’s fortunes on his back to the degree that Burnett does. For the Yankees, his season could literally mean the difference between 83 wins and 4th place or 100 wins and the division title.
After a tumultuous off-season in which the Yankees fired former pitching coach Dave Eiland and hired Larry Rothschild in large part because of Burnett, he has to perform. He can’t be what he was last year and expect there to be a gentle entreaty “c’mon A.J.” from the fans, media and organization. He’s being paid a lot of money to provide quality work and if he doesn’t, the Yankees starting pitching problems reach crisis-level proportions.
There’s never been a question of Burnett’s talent, but he’s had numerous injury problems (something to be vigilant about considering his good health over the past three seasons), and has always been this: aggravating, brilliant, inconsistent, horrible, mediocre and flighty.
This is what the Yankees bought.
But he can’t be this anymore. He has to be good.
Will he be?
Will the influence of Rothschild and all the positive reinforcement they’ve been giving Burnett over the past six months yield the consistency and durability that they need?
Not want, but need?
I don’t know.
Neither do you.
Neither do the Yankees.
Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available.
I published a full excerpt of my book here.