Burnett ready for Big Apple circus
Right-hander brings winner's mentality, new throwing program to Yanks
NEW YORK -- No one needs to remind the Yankees what A.J. Burnett could be capable of accomplishing in the American League East. They've had a front-row seat for some time.
When news broke of the right-hander's five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Yankees, the happiest people in New York may have been members of the lineup. Now they'll never have to see Burnett's biting arsenal hurtling in.
"I've had my players working on me," general manager Brian Cashman said. "His stuff is electric, everybody sees that. Our players, especially some who have relationships with A.J., say this guy is perfect here."
Against AL East competition, Burnett is 26-8 with a 3.08 ERA in 45 career starts, including a 5-0 record and a 2.56 ERA against the Red Sox. Burnett has admitted that the revved-up rivalries get him going: In 2008, he had a 1.64 ERA against the Yankees, a team that is more than happy to have him.
"Everything always worked against these guys," Burnett said on Thursday. "Maybe it was an audition every time. Whether you love them or hate them, everybody wants to be a Yankee."
For a time span much longer than the free-agency filing period, Cashman was fielding requests from players already on the Yankees' payroll -- just innocuous clubhouse conversations, where tampering rules do not apply.
Johnny Damon led the charge, along with Alex Rodriguez. Derek Jeter pulled the GM aside and lobbied for a trade. And now that Burnett is officially in the fold, slotting behind CC Sabathia in the rotation, his new teammates have vowed to take care of him.
"That was one of the things Alex talked about," Burnett said. "He said, 'You've got a lot of other guys that can run things.' I think I would have liked it either way, if I was No. 1 somewhere else or here. The fact that I'm pitching behind CC is going to be great. I enjoy being where I'm at -- I don't need to be a No. 1 guy."
Burnett was 18-10 with a 4.07 ERA and an AL-leading 231 strikeouts in 35 games for the Blue Jays last year before contractually opting out of the final two years of his deal to become a free agent.
His timing was terrific -- he established career highs in wins, strikeouts and innings (231 1/3), and finished strong, with a 9-2 record and 2.72 ERA over his final 15 starts.
"This guy wants to win," manager Joe Girardi said, "and that's exciting."
Burnett credits Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay with turning him on to a different training program, one that permits him to conserve energy over the long haul by cutting down on the amount of mandatory work between starts.
"Roy pounded it in my head that I don't have to throw 98 [mph] every day, that I don't have to go full tilt to win ballgames and be successful," Burnett said.
"I always just showed off what I had when I felt good, and it got me in trouble. Now I know when to throw and not to throw. Some days I might not touch a ball; it doesn't mean anything's wrong. You just don't need to do it all the time."
That is welcome news for the Yankees, who have now committed a five-year contract to a player who has spent the equivalent of 3 1/2 Major League seasons on the disabled list.
Burnett said that he has learned how to budget his body so it is ready to go at all times, instead of displaying the youthful exhibitionism of ripping off throws just because his arm felt good.
"We're hopeful that that's the guy who has emerged and grown, and learned to harness his ability," Cashman said. "He's a bona fide front-line starter when he's healthy. I know there's risk attached to it, based on the past history. We're hopeful that luck will be on our side."
Cashman was encouraged by the amount of interest Burnett drew from the clubs that know him best, calling it "exclamation points" on his resume.
Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi confirmed that Toronto had serious designs on retaining Burnett, and Braves GM Frank Wren was in Florida's front office when Burnett called Miami home. Indeed, Burnett might have been swayed by the Braves if only Atlanta were closer to Maryland.
"[New York is] close to home -- a two-hour train ride," Burnett said. "The family will be here every weekend. That was a big factor. I'm not going to say money wasn't an issue, I'm not going to lie. Of course money had something to do with it. I have a chance to win five years in a row here. How often do you get that chance?"
He is ready to find out. Down the stretch, Burnett even received a thumbs-up review of New York from a surprising source -- Carl Pavano, the much-maligned Yankees right-hander and a former Marlins teammate.
Standing down the third-base line during the Blue Jays' September visit, Burnett and Pavano dodged batting-practice drives and spoke honestly about what life is like pitching for the Yankees. Pavano's positive review surprised even Burnett.
"He said it's great," Burnett said. "He recommended that I come here and believed that I need to come here to really blossom and start something special. The first thing he told me is that he didn't do it right from the beginning and got off on the wrong foot in New York. But it's a great place to play and a great place to live."
So did Pavano offer any advice on things not to do?
"I only listen to some things Carl says," Burnett said with a laugh. "I've played with Carl. I know Carl. Carl's a beauty."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.