By Neil Keefe
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This week marked the official start of baseball season in my mind with championship weekend in the NFL coming to a close and spring training just a few weeks away. The offseason hasn’t gone according to plan for the Yankees (well, it hasn’t gone according to my plan) and after Brian Cashman’s breakfast on Tuesday, it has left me with a lot of questions that need answer.

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I’m calling this offseason the Murphy’s Law Offseason and I am ready for whatever decisions Brian Cashman and the Yankees front office make from here on out. There is nothing that will surprise me at this point.

But as much as I would like to think everything will work its self out in the end, we are a weekend away from January being over and the rotation is still keeping me up at night, and Andy Pettitte is making Yankees fans wait like a prom date at the front door wondering if they will be stood up.

The baseball world has revolved around the Yankees the last few days and it called for an emergency discussion via e-mail with Sweeny Murti (the voice of reason).

Keefe: You told me last week on Twitter that everything is going to be OK. I’m not sure if I have bought into it yet or if that everything will in fact be OK.

I’m still holding out hope that Andy Pettitte will come back and if he does, then yes, everything will be OK. But with the way this offseason has gone, I’m fully prepared for a dagger from Pettitte. I’m just planning on him not coming back at this point, so that there isn’t a letdown in the near future, and then if he does say he is coming back it will be something to get excited about.

Cashman said at Tuesday’s breakfast that he would be open to Pettitte coming back midseason since he doesn’t care how he gets good starting pitching, but he also said he doesn’t think Pettitte would be for that. I think a lot of people are just assuming that the Yankees can stay afloat until the trade deadline with what they have in the rotation, but who’s to say they will?

But for any Yankees fan that is worried about rotation, there’s always Bartolo Colon! (I already pre-ordered my Colon jersey from Modell’s.)

Murti: I just have the feeling, Neil, that Pettitte will be riding to your rescue and you can go back to more pressing concerns like analyzing your Oscar ballot.

Here’s my thought: It’s been over three months since the Yanks were eliminated by the Rangers – the night that Pettitte pulled Brian Cashman aside and said he was leaning towards retirement. Three months later we’re still waiting for an official declaration? Just call it a hunch that the guy still wants to pitch, but didn’t want to commit until he was fully prepared to do so.

Colon has made 47 starts (in five seasons) since winning the Cy Young, and has lasted less than five innings in 11 of them. Realistically, the Yankees have a better shot of getting something out of Cy Young. Or as one Twitter follower suggested, maybe he can pitch batting practice to A-Rod who has eight career home runs off him.

Whether its Colon or Mark Prior or whoever, it’s nothing new for teams to see if they can get something out of these low-cost moves. I remember in 2001 the Yanks actually brought Sid Fernandez in for a few spring starts. He never made it, obviously.

Maybe A.J. Burnett will be your answer! Let’s remember that there is a good pitcher in there somewhere. He was actually outstanding last April and May and even had a good July. But when the wheels fell off, he crashed hard. I’d actually be quite surprised if he took an entire winter and came back six months later to pitch as bad as he did last August and September. That would take some talent!

Anyway, maybe my Kevin Bacon “Remain calm, all is well!” comment wasn’t as accurate as you hoped. But it amused me for the moment, and isn’t that all that counts?

Keefe: I’m not sure that the “good pitcher” you talk about with A.J. Burnett really exists. I know we have gone back and forth on him a lot and about his one career postseason win in Game 2 against the Phillies went he out pitched a sad version of Pedro Martinez. But you were there on Tuesday as well when Brian Cashman said that Burnett “has great talent” and it seems like Burnett has a lot of people fooled with his potential abilities.

Last season I wrote about the three stages of A.J. Burnett meltdowns and used thousands of words to talk about how this “great stuff” that everyone talks about (cough, cough John Sterling and Michael Kay, cough, cough) probably doesn’t even exist. Roy Halladay has “great stuff” and Tim Lincecum has “great stuff” and CC Sabathia has “great stuff.” A.J. Burnett doesn’t. He has “inconsistent stuff” and there is nothing scarier than the first inning of any of his starts when he might take the Yankees out of the game after five minutes. Well, I guess there is something scarier and that is when he has his usual meltdown somewhere in the fourth or fifth inning and erases a Yankees lead in the time that it takes to go to the bathroom and back in Section 203.

I know, I know. Every team has its problems and no team is perfect and A.J. Burnett is the problem for Yankees fans. But everyone recognizes this and right now he is probably the most important part of the 2011 Yankees outside of Andy Pettitte’s decision. I just think it’s ridiculous that the 2011 season hinges on whether or not A.J. Burnett earns his contract or if Andy Pettitte decides to pitch. Gambling on A.J. Burnett isn’t exactly something I look forward to. How did it come to this? HOW?!

If Burnett has a repeat of 2010 in 2011, we can forget that whole plan about waiting for the trade deadline to make a move and I will be in hiding like I was for the second half of the 2008 season. But if he IS the pitcher that makes $16.5 million a year and $500,000 a start, then all will be fine. The only problem is that I trust Joe Girardi to tell the truth on injuries more than I trust A.J. Burnett to be anything other than a letdown.

I said on January 1, 2011 that A.J. Burnett gets a clean slate in my book and that I would enter 2011 with an open mind on him, so I think everything I said there is fair and goes along with my New Year’s resolution.

Murti: Clearly your definitions of “clean slate” and “open mind” are different from the rest of us. And did you ever notice that when people say those things, it’s really not true is it? Your feelings about AJ Burnett are deeply rooted, and that’s OK. He has pressure on him in 2011 and he knows it.

I can tell you in talking to him over the last two years that being paid a lot of money and not performing to his ability is not something he takes lightly. Regardless of what 50,000 people think every night, he has to walk through a room with 24 other teammates every day and know they don’t care how much money he’s making either. They care about winning. And that kind of pressure can be greater than what comes out of the stands or out of talk radio and blogs. The guy knows how bad he’s been. And with all due respect to Larry Rothschild, I’m not a big fan of saying he will turn Burnett around. Burnett has to do that himself.

Keefe: So if Burnett is the No. 3 starter, that means Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre are still the No. 4 and No. 5 starters. We have talked a few times since the end of the season, and every time we talk, I bring this up, but just think, “Hey, there’s no way they will start the season like this.”

Everyone will bring up the point that Cashman was ready to go into 2006 with Bubba Crosby as his center fielder before signing Johnny Damon, but that got taken care of in December. We are a weekend away from February and a couple of weeks away from spring training, and I’m supposed to accept that the team with the highest payroll in baseball is going to enter the season with a No. 4 starters that has one career win and a No. 5 starter that is 13-29 with a 5.27 ERA in his career. I hope Cashman was not only pouring shots on Wednesday night at Foley’s, but also picking up the tab.

Let’s say Andy Pettitte doesn’t return, since he isn’t signed right now and that’s all we can go off of. Is Brian Cashman really going to go into the season with a rotation of CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, Pray for rain, Pray for rain, Pray for rain? Give me Millwood! Give me someone! Give me Colon! (I just said that.) Anybody but Mitre!

Murti: Your fears are legit here, which is why no one should be angry with Cashman for telling Mike Francesa that the Red Sox are better right now. But there are still more than two months left until Opening Day and more than six months left until the trading deadline.

If the Yankees had Nova and Mitre as the fourth and fifth starters all year, then we’ve got problems. But tell me when was the last time the Yankee roster on January 28 was the same roster as October 1. I don’t ever remember a general manager going on vacation from February to the end of the year. There isn’t anything attractive right now, but things happen as the season progresses.

And even if Sergio Mitre has to make a few starts, remember that Yankees staffs featuring Kenny Rogers, Hideki Irabu, Denny Neagle, and Shawn Chacon all made the postseason!

There are holes in the rotation. But the standings are the same today as they were a month ago and will be the same a month from now. Let’s revisit this rotation situation when the season actually starts, OK?

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Besides, if the Yankees landed Cliff Lee we’d STILL be having this discussion about the back of the rotation. Amazing, right?

Keefe: I wasn’t a Kenny Rogers, Hideki Irabu or Denny Neagle guy (not too many people probably were), but I was at the Stadium the night Shawn Chacon became a legend in Game 4 of the 2005 ALDS sending the series back to Anaheim before Gary Sheffield and Bubba Crosby collided in Game 5,

I talked to Jon Heyman on Thursday about the Rafael Soriano deal and I said that I hope Soriano is lights out at the setup man and the Yankees go on to win with him having a monster season. That way Cashman can’t take credit for bringing him aboard, the same way that Theo Epstein can’t take credit for Josh Beckett saving the 2007 ALCS and Mike Lowell winning World Series MVP in 2007 since he said he wouldn’t have made the trade with the Marlins if he wasn’t away from the team.

I understand Cashman’s logic that agents and general managers will hold him up now in the future because it looks like he went back on his word when he said he wouldn’t pay $6 million for Soriano and ended up paying $12 million (though we now know it was Hal Steinbrenner and Randy Levine’s doing), but for him to blame it on finances and draft picks is ridiculous.

Cashman’s draft history isn’t exactly something worth not fixing the eighth inning over and the Yankees aren’t exactly in financial trouble, whether or not they claim to have a budget. I will gladly give away the 31st pick in the draft in a player that will likely never reach the majors for a guy that will provide the best late-game combination in the entire league.

Murti: In 2011 there is every reason to like this deal. But that’s about it. It’s a terrible contract from a team perspective.

First of all the eighth inning is over valued when you really look at what you’re getting. Just look at last season. We all say what a great job Kerry Wood did, but from August 1 to the end of the regular season the Yankees were 29-30. Wood really made a big difference, didn’t he?

The Yankees for most of that stretch had no Andy Pettitte and a shaky A.J. Burnett. So here we are again with the eighth inning set, Pettitte and Burnett in basically the same spot, and the Yankees are better?

There is value in shortening a game, but it was a bad investment. How many eighth inning leads did the Yankees blow last year? As one executive told me, a one-inning pitcher with a 9.00 ERA will still protect a two-run lead every time out!

So, you’re really paying for Soriano as insurance for Mariano. Pricey, but OK let’s go with that. If anything should happen to Mariano that forces Soriano into the closer role the team still won’t have him at any cost certainty because of the opt-outs. The minute Soriano is the next Yankees closer, that’s when he opts out and asks for even more money.

Even if it was a straight three-year deal, this idea that Soriano is Mariano’s “heir” is laughable too. If Rivera pitches out his new two-year deal and retires, Soriano would only be signed for one year and would already be 33 years old.

The draft pick is more about philosophy than the pick itself. Scouting directors have told me before that if their team signs a front-line starter or other premier player, there is little to argue about forfeiting the pick. But to sign a non-starter and non-closer for a first-round pick is not efficient. Many draft picks don’t work out, the Yankees aren’t alone in that. But the Yankees farm system is stronger today than it was five years ago in large part to an overall philosophy. Cliff Lee is worth a first-rounder. A setup guy isn’t.

This deal will be great for the Yankees if Soriano pitches brilliantly for three seasons and doesn’t opt out, if the draft pick turns out to be nobody, and if the Yankees don’t decide to pass over an important player over a $4 million dollar difference all because they paid an extra $7 million for their setup guy.

Keefe: The farm system is better than it was five years ago, and Cashman said that with the money and resources the Yankees have, they should have the best of both worlds with free agency and the draft. I’m just wondering why it hasn’t always been like that, though I understand George and Tampa execs should take a lot of that blame.

Andruw Jones is the new Marcus Thames because he can play outfield and Marcus Thames played the outfield like it was a Wednesday night Central Park slow-pitch league and he had taken down a 12-pack in the dugout. I’m sad to see Thames go and Jones come in, but I understand the move and why it was made. Hopefully it works out for the best.

But I was really hoping to see either Johnny Damon come back to the Bronx (I think he could return his 2009 self by playing 81 games in Yankee Stadium), or see Manny Ramirez get a chance with the Yankees and just go on a revenge tour at Fenway Park. Playing in his hometown for a team that is competing and against the team that made him who he is, but also ran him out of town I think would have rejuvenated him for 162 games.

I know that part of the reason that neither of those players was brought in is because of Jorge Posada’s spot on the roster plugging the DH spot. But now that they are in Tampa, it has made that Tampa offense credible again after the loss of Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena. Sure, Damon and Ramirez aren’t what they used to be, but they can still be dangerous and I don’t think the Rays are going away with their combination of young talent and veterans that have won before and know how to.

I think a lot of people prematurely wrote off the Rays. I think they will be here to stay all season if they can improve their bullpen.

Murti: Here’s an idea: The Yankees should be allowed to go over the 25-man roster limit just so they can sign every player who could potentially be good for another team. And in case they missed anybody on the first try, maybe they can have a draft at the All-Star break so that they can pick up anybody that snuck up on them and dared to help another team reach the .500 mark.

Seriously, I think you need to detach the name value and look at the current players. Damon, you’re right, can help this team but he makes the Yankees too left-handed, an area they were vulnerable last season. Ramirez is a big gamble at this point and frankly so is Jones. His home run ratio was very good, but otherwise he is still far below the player we remember Andruw Jones to be.

Even before signing those two ex-Red Sox, I thought Tampa Bay was strong enough in starting pitching to stay over .500. I don’t think these guys make them incredibly better, but slightly better. The Rays will be a team to watch out for, but I don’t think they are a 90-win team anymore.

Keefe: I like your idea of letting the Yankees go over the 25-man roster. It would make things a lot easier and you definitely have my vote for commissioner.

The last time we talked, I thought it would be the last time we talked until spring training. But who know that Brain Cashman would turn into Jim Carrey’s character, Fletcher Reede, in Liar Liar and start to tell the truth and only the truth every time he opened his mouth?

I would like to think that we could go 17 days until the start of spring training without me needing an emergency chat to relieve stress caused by the Yankees, but let’s be honest, something between now and February 14 is sure to come up.

Hopefully the next time we talk it’s because Andy Pettitte decided to come back or Brian Cashman found a way for the team with the highest payroll in the sport to have a reliable fourth and fifth starter.

Murti: That’s funny because I heard that at the last Yankee organizational meeting Brian Cashman went around the room insulting every member of the organization just like in Liar Liar. No, not really.

Anyway, I sometimes feel like your own personal 911. I’m here for you.

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