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Uncorrected Proofs

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So, I don't enjoy picking on the Toronto Star's Richard Griffin, who I usually prefer to ignore, although admittedly that is difficult to do when he's explaining to you how, where, and when his children were conceived, as he is wont to do. But Griffin has gone completely off the reservation this time. In this article that is supposed to be a story about how Dustin McGowan is progressing, Griffin decides that to rip into A.J. Burnett. Griffin writes:

"Camaraderie and clubhouse atmosphere are important, but if the Jays are going to be true contenders this year, they need to start being realistic and look to the future. No more promises of Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett as Nos. 1-2 to lead them to the Promised Land. The talent is there with Burnett. The results aren't.

Instead, the '08 Jays should start promoting a top of the rotation with more upside. The most important man on the pitching staff if the Jays are going to earn a playoff berth could be Dustin McGowan. No doubt Halladay is the ace, but to challenge in the East, they need a rising star, not a man whose career best at age 31 is 12 victories.

Many experts still believe that Burnett can finally fulfill his potential and become a 17-20 game winner. Where is the evidence? In his eight-plus seasons, A.J. has been on the disabled list 10 times for as total of 592 days - four times in two Jays seasons. Even in the season that earned him his free-agent contract, he won just 12 times in 32 starts.

Meanwhile, McGowan, who will pitch at 26, matched Burnett's top win total in his first full season."

Where to begin? Burnett had 12 wins in his age 25 season (11 in his age 24), as well as 203 Ks in 204 1/3 innings. By the time he was 26, he had almost 500 major league innings and 421 Ks. So I'm not sure where Griffin is going with this. Griffin has all but written Burnett off, but the truth is that Burnett had a terrific season with the Jays last year, posting a 176 Ks in 165 2/3 innings, and walking 66 on the way to a healthy 2.67 K/BB ratio. The previous season Burnett was excellent as well, with an ERA under 4.00 and a 3.03 K/BB.

The big knock on Burnett is that he doesn't pitch a full season, which has been true more often than not over his career. However, that hasn't stopped him from being a valuable player for the Jays over his 2 seasons. If you look around the league at team's investments in free agent starting pitchers, Burnett has been one of the better buys out there. Compared to similarly salaried free agent starters like Jarrod Washburn, Mike Mussina, Kevin Millwood, Jeff Weaver, Vincente Padilla, or Barry Zito, Burnett stacks up quite well.

I have found the Jays' treatment of Burnett puzzling. They signed him knowing his history in terms of durability and his status as a post TJ guy, but then they seem to expect him to go out and hurl his eye-popping curves and 97 mph heaters for 125 pitches a game, 200+ innings a season. He might not even have been injured last season had Gibbons not rode him insanely during Halladay's injury, at one point giving him 6 straight starts of 118-103-103-125-117-130 pitches. Perhaps not coincidentally, A.J. came up lame in his very next start after that brutal stretch. J.P. and the Jays made some ridiculous statements about how Burnett "needed to learn to pitch through pain," but there was obviously something going on much worse than that, since he was examined and then shut down for 6 weeks. Why the Jays would want someone to pitch through that serious an arm injury, I have no idea.

Further, Griffin's preoccupation with Burnett's win figure belies the fact that, as Griffin knows, the Jays offense was putrid last season, and seemed particularly weak when Burnett was starting. In fact, A.J.'s best stretch of the season coincided with the bleakest stretch for the Jays offense. (for example, A.J. got almost a full run less of support per 9 IP than Doc in 2007). Wins are far too dependent on external factors to make them an optimal measure of success for a starting pitcher, and being a Jays reporter, Griffin knows well that A.J. received less than optimal support from the Jays last season. He just chooses to completely ignore it to grind his axe.

For a team with good pitching depth like the Jays, they should be content with Burnett. He provides excellent production when he's out on the mound and now the Jays have coverage for him if/when he needs rest. He'll probably opt out of his contract after this season, but if he can put together another season like last year, I would say that Jays have gotten their money's worth. Of course, the upside for Burnett is that he goes the full season, which could make him the best pitcher on the team this season.

N.B. Today's title brought to us by the Weakerthans