A.J. Burnett had his best major-league season in 2008, posting career highs in wins (18), starts (34), innings pitched (221.1), and strikeouts (231). While he didn't even remotely have the most surprising career year in the American League (that distinction goes far and away to Cliff Lee), he rebounded after a tough first half to dramatically improve his stock in an opt-out year. He did in fact opt out, and made himself appealing enough that the New York Yankees signed him to a five-year, $82.5 million contract.
And that's great. But the really important question here is, should you invest in him long term, and declare him a keeper?
Well, first things first. Burnett's got more than enough talent to look at him as a potential keeper. He was a big time prospect coming up in the Marlins' organization, and tossed a no-hitter in 2001. While he's endured injury difficulties on and off since then (he's only had 30 starts twice in his 10-year career), he's pitched well when he's been healthy. Burnett sports a 3.81 career ERA and a K/9IP of 8.3. He's always walked too many batters, but has been able to clean it up with overpowering stuff.
Last year, Burnett certainly pitched like a keeper, leading the AL in strikeouts and winning 18 games for the 4th-place Blue Jays. His 4.07 ERA wasn't great, but he had an ERA under 3.00 after the all-star break, and helped a lot of fantasy teams in the stretch run. Now he heads to the Yankees, who I have to think will win more than Toronto's 86 from last year. Does all of this add up to Burnett being a keeper?
I've teetered both ways, but in the end, I've got to say no. That's not to say that I couldn't see a weaker team keeping Burnett, or a strong team without much depth taking a chance on him. But Burnett's got those two question marks (the walks and the health) that make me worry about his ability to reliably contribute to a fantasy team. Sure, Burnett could be a nice pitcher for you, but he could also take a step backwards, or miss half of his starts with another injury.
I've always been a fan of A.J. Burnett (though obviously I'm no fan of the Yankees), and I'd like him to succeed. But guys who generate a lot of strikeouts and walks worry me, and that's exactly what Burnett is. Look at him as a first or second round pick, rather than a keeper, if you can help it.
2009 projection: 15-10, 3.90 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 190 Ks
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