Option #1: Keep everybody:
With 12 pitchers for 12 spots on the staff, the Yankees could keep everyone on the roster if they’re willing to use two of Burnett, Phil Hughes, and Freddy Garcia in the bullpen. That’s not unthinkable by any means. One of the non-starters could easily slot into the long reliever/sixth starter role without much of a problem, while the other could become the last man in the bullpen. The problem, however, is that you kind of need that last guy to make actual relief appearances at times, especially with the way Joe Girardi likes to disperse the workload he puts on his bullpen. You can’t merely stash two starting pitchers out there in case they’re needed in the rotation later. So the most likely configuration of this option involves Burnett as the fifth starter, Freddy Garcia is the long reliever role, and Phil Hughes becoming a bona fide relief pitcher. If this reality comes to pass, you can expect me to write something disparaging about it.
Option #2: Trade Burnett
Yankee fans have been dreaming about this for months, but with very little likelihood of anything happening. Put simply, for the Yankees to get someone to take Burnett off of their hands, they’d have to eat a large amount of his contract, effectively paying him $20 million or more to pitch for another team. That’s usually not an attractive proposition, but if there’s simply no room for Burnett on the Yankees’ roster, that fact may tip the scales in favor of dumping Burnett for whatever amount of payroll relief the Yankees can get out of the deal. If the Yankees can save even somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million over each of the next two seasons, which would require them to eat $25 million of Burnett’s remaining salary, it could go a long way at the margins, helping the budget conscientious Yankees scrape up the change for an upgrade at the DH position while finding another utility infielder. It would be a bitter pill to swallow to send Burnett packing while retaining that much of his cost, but it clearly makes the most sense from both a financial and roster standpoint right now. The problem, of course, is finding another team that wants to pay A.J. any amount of money in 2012 and 2013, in which case you’d be left with…
Option #3: Release Burnett:
Normally the prospect of a Major League Baseball team releasing a player they owe $33 million over two seasons to would be close to unthinkable, but with the added opportunity cost of the wasted roster spot in play, it’s actually sort of feasible that the Yankees would just cut bait with Burnett and eat the money if they can’t find another way to move him. I’d still say it’s pretty unlikely, however.
Option #4: Make Burnett a reliever:
This option has been bandied about since the beginning of last year or so as an option for dealing with the end of Burnett’s contract. It probably wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world, though it’s a less attractive option than trading him. The thinking is that Burnett’s fastball-curveball combo would play well in relief and that A.J. would benefit from not having to turn the lineup over. Again, it’s less ideal than getting someone to take a little bit of his contract off of your hands, but it’s probably preferable to just releasing him first. Who knows, maybe Burnett can thrive in the role and salvage at least a little bit of value.
Option #5: Make Hughes a reliever:
The flip-side of option five is deciding to make Hughes a reliever once and for all and, on a certain level, it makes more sense than doing the same with Burnett. Unlike A.J., Hughes actually has a track record of coming out of the bullpen for middle relief work, and he has performed quite well in the role. The ability to empty the tank and limit his exposure makes his lack of a secondary arsenal less important and allows him to feature his fastball much more prominently, which Hughes is obviously more comfortable doing. Still, doing this now will essentially end Hughes’ potential career as a starting pitcher which, given the ability he flashed in 2010, would seem like a pretty odd decision for a team that’s otherwise loaded with talent in the bullpen. I can certainly see the Yankees throwing in the towel on Phil this spring, but I very much hope they don’t simply for the sake of continuing to try to straighten out Burnett.
Option #6: Trade Hughes:
The most tantalizing option, in my opinion, but also the most esoteric. After a year and a half of struggling for various reasons and just two years away from free agency, Hughes’ trade value is pretty much at rock bottom right now, which makes trading him a difficult proposition. At best, you could maybe find someone willing to give you an upgrade at DH for this year in exchange for taking Hughes on as a reclamation project, but if you think Philip still has potential as a starter, that becomes a very short-sighted deal. The only way I see this option coming to fruition is if Hughes becomes a supplemental piece in a trade swapping a more valuable commodity like Manny Banuelos or Dellin Betances for a position player.
Barring such a trade, my preference is for Hughes to get the first crack at being the 5th starter, Garcia to fill the long-reliever/sixth starter role, and A.J. Burnett to play his home games somewhere far, far away from the Bronx. Anyone disagree?