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Keefe To The City: Caught Between Rock, Hard Place

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

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By Neil Keefe
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When the 2010 Yankees schedule came out, the first thing I did was the first thing I always do when the Yankees schedule comes out: find out when all the Boston series are. It was surprising to see the Yankees opening the season at Fenway Park, and it was even more surprising, scary actually, to see them closing the season at Fenway Park. So I stared at the computer screen, looked at October 1, 2 and 3, closed my eyes and made a wish like I was about to blow out the candles on a birthday cake. My wish was for the Yankees to have already clinched a postseason spot before the final series, so that the last three games against the Red Sox would be meaningless.

Here we are … the last three games of the season at Fenway Park, 180 days since the season opened there, and the games don’t matter, just the way I had wished for. The only thing that matters is the fact that the Yankees are now playing for the division and home-field advantage since the Rays apparently don’t want it. While I never want to see the Yankees lose, especially in Boston, I don’t want them to win the division. I hope the Yankees sweep the Red Sox this weekend, but at the same time, I hope Tampa Bay wins their three remaining games to clinch the division with the head-to-head tiebreaker.

If you want the Yankees to win the division, that means you want Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson and the return of Josh Hamilton. Yeah, I’m all set with that. I will take my chances with Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, and a lineup that will be without Justin Morneau for the second straight ALDS. I am fully aware that the law of odds and averages will eventually lead the Twins to a postseason win over the Yankees (like it did for the Yankees over the Angels, and the Angels over the Red Sox last postseason), but for now I let the current rosters and history dictate my decision making.

The only thing the Yankees have to think about between now and Wednesday is how they will set up their rotation for the ALDS. There will be no A.J. Burnett. There will be no Javier Vazquez. Burnett won’t be able to make up for his 15-loss season (and possibly counting), and Vazquez won’t be allowed to make up for October 20, 2004. The No. 2 and No. 4 starters on Opening Day will watch the ALDS the same way we will, as spectators, except they will have to hope that their incompetence doesn’t prevent the Yankees’ season from ending with anything other than a win.

Burnett and Vazquez are in an odd situation in that if they do pitch at some point in the postseason and pitch poorly, it will be their fault that the team lost. And if they don’t pitch and the team loses, it will be their fault that they didn’t live up to their expectations or contracts and impact the postseason. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t be happier that neither of them will have a chance to participate in the ALDS, unless they somehow find dirt on Joe Girardi in the next five days — the type of dirt that Chad Gaudin seems to have on Girardi.

Postseason baseball is everything to me and when I factor in the time spent watching the Yankees, writing about the Yankees, reading about the Yankees and the money spent going to games or on merchandise, the last thing I want is a season wasted at the hands of A.J. Burnett or Javier Vazquez. You never want to get beat with your second-best pitch or third-best pitch and in this case, I don’t want the Yankees to get beat by their fourth-best starter or fifth-best starter (if they are even that at this point).

If the Yankees advance to the ALCS, they are going to need a fourth starter (unless the Baseball Gods want to do me a favor and sprinkle in some rainouts). And at that point, Joe Girardi is going to have to make a decision: A.J. Burnett or Javier Vazquez? There is a chance that Ivan Nova could get the nod over them or even Dustin Moseley, and both of them probably make more sense, but Joe Girardi works in mysterious ways in October (see: Freddy Guzman on the 2009 ALCS roster), so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him turn to one of the two veterans for a postseason start. What would make the most sense would be for Girardi to try to piece together 27 outs in Game 4 of the ALCS rather than let Burnett or Vazquez roll the dice at the craps table. I’m thinking something like this:

First inning through fourth inning: Ivan Nova. Nova has proven to be solid the first time through the order (.196 BAA) and even through the second time (.246 BAA). It’s the third time through the order when he begins to tire (.400 BAA). He has a 2.57 ERA through the first four innings and a 15.00 ERA (6 IP, 10 ER) in the fifth inning.

Fifth inning: Boone Logan. Yes, I said Boone Logan. Though he could pitch any inning from the fifth inning to the seventh, depending on when the most lefties are due up.

Sixth inning: Joba Chamberlain. Something in my apartment will break because of him this postseason. I am just not sure what it will be or when it will happen.

Seventh inning: Kerry Wood. The best midseason acquisition by Brian Cashman since David Justice? He just might be.

Eighth inning: David Roberston. Give me a jam with the bases loaded and no outs and after Mariano Rivera, I will take my chances with David “Copperfield” Robertson any day of the week.

Ninth inning: Mariano Rivera. Game over.

Sounds crazy? Maybe. But the goal here is to win 11 games and traditional methods go out the window come October. You can’t tell me that you would rather start Burnett or Vazquez or Moseley in Game 4 over the plan that I just created. It might be too outside the box for some people and too Joe Maddon-esque, but I think it could work. At the worst, it’s definitely a safer bet than the alternative options.

Here I am trying to piece together 27 outs from a partial starter and five relievers for a team with a $213 million payroll because 40 percent of the Opening Day rotation is too untrustworthy, undependable and unreliable to give a start. Anyone still think Cliff Lee would have been too much or overkill? I didn’t think so.

As good as I think my idea is for Game 4, Joe Girardi’s black binder would never let him overuse the bullpen like that. And since I didn’t include Royce Ring, Jonathan Albaladejo, Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre into the plan, he probably wouldn’t approve of it. It’s inevitable … it’s going to come down to A.J. Burnett or Javier Vazquez, whether I like it not. And the only way to figure out who should get the ball is to answer this question: If you had to play a game for your life, would you start Burnett or Vazquez?

It’s a question I hope no one ever has to actually answer, but it’s the only way to decide who should get the ball when the Yankees need a fourth starter, and it’s the way Joe Girardi should think about it if and when it comes time to make a decision, and every other possibility has been exhausted. Let’s make a case for both pitchers.

A.J. Burnett
I thought A.J Burnett could be good down the stretch (well, maybe it was more of hope). I thought he could turn around what has been the worst season of any Yankee pitcher since David Cone when 4-14 in 2000. I said I wouldn’t say anything negative about him for the rest of the season. I gave him a chance, but he took the mound in Toronto with his ALDS roster spot on the line and gave the Blue Jays a chance to pad their 2010 stats in the final week of the season. So like Stevie Janowski once said, “I have tried to be your friend, but you will not listen to me, so you invited this monster.”

It’s obvious at this point that A.J. Burnett is in denial about his abilities. Maybe it’s because everyone around him tells him he has “great stuff” like delusional parents telling their kid that they are the best despite the truth. Since June 1, Burnett has made 21 starts and has won four of them. He’s 4-13 over that time with a 6.67 ERA, and is now 23-24 with a 4.64 ERA in 65 starts as a Yankee. If I’m Joe Girardi and I’m managing for a championship and for a hefty contract this offseason, the last person I want deciding my salary for the next few years is a pitcher who found a way to lose at least 15 games for a 94-plus win team.

Here is Burnett’s line from Monday night’s loss:

2.1 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 1 BB, 1K, 2 HR

Now, here is a quote from Burnett following that pitching line:

“Joe’s going to make a decision on his own. I don’t have anything to prove. He saw what I did last year in the postseason. Everybody always says that the season doesn’t matter here and the postseason does. He makes the decisions and I want the ball whenever he gives it to me.”

Does that sound like a pitcher who lost for the seventh time in 11 starts and who has just one win since September 28th? That’s right, one win in 65 days. Give him the ball, Joe!

What’s even more puzzling than Burnett thinking that losing in the regular season at $500,000 a start, are the words he chose to describe his current state of mind.

“I don’t have anything to prove. He saw what I did last year in the postseason.”

 

Yes, A.J. Burnett won Game 2 of the World Series, and it was a must-win game for the Yankees. But let’s not forget he started four other games in the postseason and either lost or earned no decisions. Not to mention his meltdowns in two potential clinchers (Game 5 of the ALCS and Game 5 of the World Series).

Here is Burnett’s line from Game 5 of the ALCS:

6 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 3 K

And here is his line from Game 5 of the World Series, a game in which the first four Phillies reached base and had a 3-0 lead before Burnett recorded an out:

2 IP, 4 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 4 BB, 2K, 1 HR

And in case you forgot, here is how Game 5 went down for Burnett, batter by batter:

First inning: Single, hit by pitch, home run, walk, strikeout, groundout, groundout

Second inning: Strikeout, groundout, walk, pop-out

Fourth inning: Walk, walk, single, single

So, yeah we all saw what you did in the postseason last year.

Javier Vazquez
The trade for Javier Vazquez started out with people projecting him to win at least 15 games for the Yankees, and it escalated to the point where some suggested he could win 20 games if he had the type of season he had for the Braves in 2009 with the elite offense of the 2010 Yankees.

On Wednesday night in Toronto, Vazquez lost for the 10th time this season, giving him a .500 record on a postseason team, while allowing 10 hits and seven earned runs in 4 2/3 innings, including three home runs. His ERA ballooned to 5.32 — 2.45 runs higher than his season ERA with the Braves a year ago — and as he walked off the mound at the Rogers Centre, it was quite possibly the last time we will ever see Javier Vazquez pitch for the Yankees.

No one figured into the equation that pitchers that throw 85-mph fastballs, which rise at the belt don’t usually fair well in the AL East when projecting Vazquez’s 2010 wins total. And instead of rewriting the most embarrassing chapter of his career (2004), he only extended it.

Six years ago, it was Vazquez’s incompetence (and a supposed shoulder injury that we didn’t find out about until well after the fact), which helped lead to the results of 2004 ALCS, which I like to pretend didn’t happen. There isn’t a moment in my life as a sports fan that will ever be as horrific as those four nights in October, and Vazquez is a big reason why, as he left Joe Torre with no decision other than to hand the ball to Kevin Brown in Game 7.

I can still remember meeting a sketchy stranger in a Ford Explorer with tinted windows down a side street near Fenway to buy two tickets to Game 5 for the chance to see the Yankees clinch the pennant in Boston with all of my spending money for my first semester of freshman year in my pocket. Two nights later, it was all over. Don’t worry, I’m not bitter or anything.

When the Yankees signed Johnny Damon, they took the heart and soul of the 2004 Red Sox and at the time I thought it would help make the 2004 ALCS hurt less. I wasn’t a fan of the trade that gave Vazquez a second chance in the Bronx, but I thought that if Vazquez could pitch well in the playoffs and be a part of a championship team with the Yankees, like Damon, he could sort of take away from what happened six Octobers ago. Now it looks like he will leave town the same way he did the first time: with every Yankees fan celebrating his departure.

There’s a reason why a sequel to The Animal with Rob Schneider was never made. Because why would you want to recapture or extend something that was so bad the first time? And there’s a reason why Javier Vazquez should have never been brought back for a second stint. It hasn’t gone as Brian Cashman envisioned it when he decided to make a sequel to the worst story in Yankees history.

The Verdict
There is no easy answer to this question. I’m not even sure there is a right or wrong answer. So basically it’s an open-ended question from a philosophy class — the exact type of questions that I hate. I need definitive answers.

When it comes down to it, I think I would give the ball to Burnett. Would I feel confident or comfortable doing so? No. But I have a feeling Girardi is going to make the same decision if he has the chance to in a couple of weeks.

While I despise A.J. Burnett as much as any other Yankee in my lifetime, I have already seen what Javier Vazquez is capable of under the bright lights of October, and I don’t think it’s wrong to think the second verse will be the same as the first.

So like my Chad Gaudin-Chan Ho Park argument from July, there is once again a winner by default and this time it’s A.J. Burnett.

Follow Neil on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NeilKeefe