Vet Right-Hander Must Prove He Can Be More Than Mr. April

By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/

NEW YORK ( — Back on March 31, we ran a poll asking the public which player holds the key to the Yankees’ success in 2011. We listed 12 answers and readers added in another 20 or so.

Around 850 votes were cast and A.J. Burnett was by far the winner, defeating Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter among the official answer choices and “The Hot Dog Guy” and “Who Cares?” among the write-in candidates. Burnett grabbed 60 percent of the vote and considering how bad he was last season and how desperately the Yankees need him to be good this season, the fans were pretty much right on in their assessment.

My guess is Burnett has far better things to do than to read a poll, but he definitely knows what people were saying and will continue to say as this season moves along from November-like conditions to the red-hot dog days and beyond.

And so far he’s done his part. But then again, April has generally been his October.

If ever there was an enigma wrapped in a puzzle surrounded by mystery and intrigue, it’s the hard-throwing and now-34-year-old right-hander. Burnett, as we all know, has the ability to dazzle and a penchant for disaster. He can captivate an audience and decapitate his team’s chances — usually from inning to inning and usually without warning.

But with the Yankees’ rotation one big potluck holiday surprise, it’s imperative he keep his train on the rails. All too often he’s been dominant for stretches only to forget for twice as long how good he really is, or can be.

For whatever reason, Burnett has always been a fast starter. He’s nine games above .500 for his career in the season’s first month and prior to Monday night’s sterling effort in a 2-0 loss to the White Sox at the Stadium had been 8-0 with a 4.00 ERA in 14 March/April starts in pinstripes.

Burnett had it all working on Monday night as he limited the ChiSox to one run and three hits over eight innings. It was easily his best start of the season and provided more of a reassurance that while the Yankees play musical starter in the third, fourth and fifth slots, he will do his best to be the rock behind ace C.C. Sabathia.

The Yankees had some margin for error at the top of the rotation to begin the season. The thought was that Burnett would be the third starter behind Sabathia and Phil Hughes, but God only knows when, or if, Hughes will get through this “dead arm” period and get back to throwing in the mid-90s. Until that happens Burnett will have to be every bit as good as he was Monday night as often as possible. The Yankees’ offense and bullpen should be good enough to propel the team to many more wins than losses, but with the Red Sox and Rays now over their early season schizophrenia, the Yankees’ lead atop the AL East can be termed tenuous at best.

Now, as great as Burnett has been to begin a season, he’s traditionally lost it a bit in May and June, again, for reasons that make little sense considering he’s never really been hurt since 2003. Burnett is 28-36 in 84 career starts during those months, including 3-7  last season. Unlike past years where he consistently posted a 4.00 ERA from month to month, it approached 7.00 last season in 11 May and June starts.

In a season where the Yankees really need sure things in their rotation, Burnett represents the ultimate conundrum. We just don’t know what he will do from start to start. The only thing we do know is he starts off well, which is where we are right now. He’s been the Yankees’ second-best starter to date behind Sabathia, going 3-1 with a 3.52 ERA.

We just have no way of knowing if it will continue and that has to terrify the Yankee fan. Because if Burnett truly goes south, like the wheels come off the bus south like it did last season, the Yankees could be left with an ace and four jokers in their rotation.

I’m intrigued by the early showings from Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, but we cannot take to the bank the duo with a combined age of 72 will continue to do what they have done in limited appearances this season. Both have plenty of gas left in their respective tanks, but can we ask Colon at soon-to-be 38 and not exactly in the best of shape to make 30 starts? Can we expect Garcia with his fastball ranging from 82 to 90 mph to be able to consistently outfox and outflank opposing American League lineups with guile and a change of pace?

And what about Ivan Nova, a youngster I have firmly backed? So far he’s been less than scintillating.

I think a lot of Yankees fans are waiting patiently by their laptops for GM Brian Cashman to do something, to somehow pry the great Felix Hernandez from Seattle or steal a front-end starter from some unsuspecting team that may feel it is already eliminated from postseason contention. I don’t see it happening, or if it does it will come at the trade deadline or fly so far under the radar the entire world will be caught off-guard. Just don’t expect a move of that magnitude to happen any time soon.

Instead, get used to Colon, Garcia and possibly Kevin Millwood as fixtures in the rotation. In an ideal world either Colon or Garcia would be the long man, but right now that’s not an option. Maybe it will be eventually, but, again, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

This is all the more reason why Burnett has to continue to take the mound every fifth day and pitch like he’s capable. And when he doesn’t, pitching coach Larry Rothschild has to do what Dave Eiland couldn’t — fix the problems sooner rather than later.

Remember, Burnett was elected the Yankees’ most important player in 2011 by his constituents. And if the current New York baseball landscape is anything like the real world, popular opinion can go to hell in a hurry. Just ask seemingly any elected official these days.

It’s Burnett or bust and change is expected because it will not remain April forever.

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini

Do you agree with Jeff’s assessment of the Yankees’ rotation? Are you worried about Burnett? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below.

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