With all the marquee names strewn throughout the Yankee roster, possibly the most important man in pinstripes is Allan James Burnett.
More commonly known as A.J., the extremely talented, yet equally erratic Burnett carries a heavy burden in 2011.
As the Yankees face the dawning of the new season with great uncertainty in their starting rotation, A.J. represents one of the most experienced arms on the staff, one that will be leaned upon heavily this year.
An integral piece of the Yankees' charge to their 27th World Series Championship in 2009, Burnett experienced a horrific 2010 season. Though paid like an ace, he more closely resembled a career minor league hurler last year, as he struggled to achieve any consistency throughout the season.
Though he managed to make at least 33 starts for the third consecutive year, something that was unthinkable earlier in his injury-marred career, A.J. didn't pitch like the dominant hurler he is capable of being often enough for the 2010 Yankees.
After beginning the 2010 campaign in a strong fashion, winning three of his first five starts and allowing only one home run through the end of April, Burnett imploded, becoming a shadow of himself from June on.
On June 1, A.J. stood at 6-2 with a 3.28 ERA after 11 starts, looking very much like the ace the Yankees envisioned when they signed him to a five year, $82.5 million contract prior to the 2009 season.
However, that's precisely when the trouble began. Over his next five starts, all in the month of June, Burnett went 0-5 with an 11.35 ERA, allowing an opponents' batting average of .357 during that period, while giving up nine home runs and 17 walks in only 23 innings. Suddenly A.J. couldn't find the plate, and when he did, opponents hammered his offerings.
Many pointed to the mysterious disappearance of then pitching coach Dave Eiland, who vanished from the team on a vaguely explained leave of absence precisely coinciding with Burnett's June swoon.
Whatever the reasoning, A.J. fell apart and would never completely recover over the course of the year.
Upon Eiland's return, Burnett responded with a strong July, going 3-1 with a 2.00 ERA, recapturing the dominance that he had tantalized with early in the year.
The struggles returned though, as he faltered massively in August, going 0-4 with a 7.80 ERA, allowing 38 hits in 30 innings. Burnett followed his atrocious August with an even September, sprinkling in a few solid starts amongst a few terrible outings.
With the uncertainty in the pitching staff for the 2011 Yankees, the team will need A.J. to resemble the version of himself present in April, May and July, rather than the erratic question mark he was over the other months of the 2010 campaign.
So far, they have to be pleased with his initial outings in 2011.
Once again following CC Sabathia in the rotation, trying to anchor the number two slot, Burnett has provided some stability after the Yankees' ever-reliable ace.
His first start, though not perfect, was a step in the right direction for A.J. as he attempts to forget last season. Burnett battled through a tough head cold in order to make the start against Detroit at Yankee Stadium. Though ill, he managed to complete five innings, allowing three runs on five hits and one walk, with six strikeouts. While the line isn't pretty, the one walk was encouraging for a pitcher who allowed 3.8 walks per nine innings last season, and 4.2 walks per nine in 2009.
In his next outing, another home start, this time against the Minnesota Twins, Burnett built upon his first start, earning his second victory in as many starts. This time, A.J. hurled six innings, but likely could have gone deeper as he was pulled after only 99 pitches with a 4-2 lead. During his six strong innings, Burnett allowed two earned runs on five hits and two walks, while striking out five Twins. He may have only allowed one run if Mark Teixeira had been able to snag Jason Kubel's ground-ball double near the first base bag, but the hit skipped past the Yankee first baseman for a run-scoring double. Either way, it was an encouraging start for Burnett, something upon which he will hope to build as the season progresses.
Of course, we saw A.J. jump out to a stellar April last season before falling apart completely over the course of the year. The Yankees are encouraged that they can help prevent such an occurence this season with the presence of a new pitching coach, veteran Larry Rothchild.
If the 2011 New York Yankees maintain hopes of reaching the playoffs for a third consecutive year, emerging from a loaded AL East, they will need a return to form out of the 34-year-old Burnett. With two 24-year-olds in Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, as well as the injury-plagued veteran Freddy Garcia, A.J. Burnett will be counted upon to provide some leadership as well as quality innings atop the Yankee rotation.
Over his first two starts, the signs are encouraging, but we may have to wait until June to see if A.J Burnett truly has turned the page on his awful 2010 and is ready to harness the immense talents that everyone around baseball knows he possesses.