Commentary

Yankees' new No. 2 is ... A.J. Burnett?

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild believes enigmatic righty is still capable of stepping up

Updated: July 28, 2011, 11:25 PM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

The New York Yankees don't want to pay Felix Hernandez prices for Ubaldo Jimenez production. They like the Los Angeles Dodgers' Hiroki Kuroda but aren't sure if he will ultimately waive his no-trade clause.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
Debby Wong/US PresswireBurnett has been erratic this season, as usual. But the Yankees desperately need him to perform better down the stretch.

The Yankees want to find a bona fide No. 2 starter. They need to because A.J. Burnett has never consistently pitched like a guy being paid $16.5 million is expected to throw.

"If [Burnett] is throwing the way I think he can, that is all for naught," Yankees pitching Larry Rothschild said of the possible acquistions before Sunday's trading deadline.

Burnett said he doesn't take it personally at all that his responsibility, his role -- to play Robin to CC Sabathia's Batman -- is the Yankees' biggest question mark right now. Burnett is having a typical Burnett season -- going into Friday night's start against the Baltimore Orioles, he is 8-8 with a 4.21 ERA.

"I haven't pitched up to my potential yet," said the 34-year-old Burnett, who was talking about his season, but easily could have been talking about his career. "I hope I can hit a run here, toward the end. Any help we can get, I'm all for it."

There is no reason to believe the Yankees can fully rely on Burnett -- although he has been better than his awful 10-15, 5.26 ERA numbers from a season ago.

"I've went five [innings] every start," Burnett said. "Knock on wood. I've made strides."

But not enough for GM Brian Cashman not to nominate Bartolo Colon as the team's No. 2 starter. Not enough for Cashman to not pray that the Rockies will lower their asking price for Jimenez.

"We'll just try to get him going," Rothschild said. "I can't worry about what might be here and what isn't here now. I can't concern myself with that. I can concern myself with making these guys as good as I can."

Still, as good as the Yankees' starting pitching has been -- Sabathia has been outstanding, and Colon and Freddy Garcia have been surprisingly good -- it remains by far the team's biggest concern. The plan all along has been to tread water at the top of the division or wild-card standings until now and then pounce on a big-time starter.

The problem is, Seattle won't give up Hernandez, even if the Yankees offered 12 prospects, Legends Seats and free Yankee Universe passes. And while Kuroda is a possibility (and he has a better ERA than Jimenez this season), Kuroda is not a definite upgrade over what they have.

Kuroda could be anything from the Yanks' No. 2 to No. 5 starter in the postseason rotation. He did pitch very well in the playoffs in 2008, going 2-0 with a 1.46 ERA.

Jimenez would be the Yankees' No. 2 starter and would be with the team for a while, which is why his price is so much higher. Some have pegged Jimenez as another Burnett, but that probably isn't a perfect comparison. And his contract is much more team-friendly. He will barely make more over the next three years than Burnett will take home this season alone.

The thing that has crushed Burnett's Yankees career is the one mistake he seemingly makes in every bad outing. In his three seasons, he has given up 68 homers in 524 innings, while Jimenez has allowed just 33 in 561 2/3 innings. "I have to get through a game without making that one mistake," Burnett said. "It seems like lately it has been one mistake except for the Tampa game when they scored one early. Seems like my last few games have been strong, strong, strong and then two walks and one pitch. I think staying focused and getting through that sixth and seventh is going to be big."

The Yankees may need more than that, because if 4 p.m. strikes on Sunday and there are no new No. 2 candidates coming through the Yankees' clubhouse door, then the pressure again falls on the $82.5 million man.

"Really, it is getting to the next level," Rothschild said. "He has been consistent. He has thrown pretty well throughout. I think what he is talking about is getting to that next level, where he has those games that define seasons."

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

EDITORS' PICKS