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Big-name pitchers look to turn things around in 2011 season

Sun., Dec. 26, 2010

Given the wear and tear on credit cards everywhere this time of year, it’s easy to think you can always buy happiness. But spending isn’t always the solution to your problems, even if you’re the Yankees.

With Cliff Lee having turned down $132 million and Andy Pettitte seemingly headed for retirement, the Yankees are stunningly short on starting pitching. They are counting on Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett behind CC Sabathia, with rookie Ivan Nova and journeyman Sergio Mitre the next-best options.

General manager Brian Cashman will surely add an arm or two before spring training – although for the moment he’s talking about internal options – but little would mean more for the team that has been to the championship series nine times in the last 15 seasons than getting more from Burnett, who isn’t going anywhere.

The Tigers, Angels and Twins can relate. They need turnarounds from key guys in Rick Porcello, Scott Kazmir and Nick Blackburn, respectively, as the Cubs must hope that they get the good Carlos Zambrano more often than the bad Zambrano.

The White Sox, Mets and Nationals have much invested in the renewed health of Jake Peavy, Johan Santana and Jordan Zimmermann. Kyle Lohse appears a lost cause in St. Louis, even though he has two years and almost $24 million left on his contract, and the Red Sox are only a little more optimistic about Daisuke Matsuzaka, who joins the Giants’ Barry Zito as an ace turned No. 5 starter.

No comeback candidate is more crucial than Burnett, however.

Signed to a five-year, $55-million deal after an 18-win, 231-inning season for the Marlins in 2008, Burnett was 10-15 with a 5.26 earned run average in 2010, and those numbers don’t really show the true level of disappointment. His ERA spiked to 7.01 when you don’t consider nine starts against the lowly Orioles, Indians and Royals, which was why Yankees manager Joe Girardi started him only once in the Yankees’ nine-game playoff run.

Burnett’s biggest loss has been in his command. During his two seasons with the Yankees, he’s led the American League in walks (2009), wild pitches (’09) and hit batters (’10).

Following a 14-9 season as a 20-year-old in 2009, Detroit’s Porcello never got on a roll. He wound up 10-12 with a 4.92 ERA, up a full run from his rookie season, and saw his workload drop to 162 2/3 innings.

He’ll only be 22 when his third season begins, however, and Tigers manager Jim Leyland still expects him to become one of the league’s top pitchers.

“You have some trial and error periods and I think it was nothing more than that for Rick Porcello. He’s going to be an excellent pitcher for a long time,” Leyland said.

Leyland points to Justin Verlander getting whacked around in his third season (11-17, 4.84 in 2008). He bounced back to win 19 games, work 240 innings and finish third in Cy Young voting the following season.

Even more than Zito, Kazmir clings to his spot in a strong starting rotation largely on the basis of his contract. The Rays’ Andrew Friedman made a shrewd deal when he dumped Kazmir on the Angels down the stretch in 2009, when they were trying to hold off the Rangers in a division race.

The two-time All-Star did a lot to sink the Angels in 2010, going 9-15 with a 5.94 ERA in 28 starts. Like Porcello, he got to the big leagues as a youngster, and even though he was only 26 last season, he was showing heavy wear and tear. His velocity has been in decline on both his fastball and his slider.

Mike Scioscia remains in Kazmir’s corner, remembering the lift he provided by pitching well (2-2, 1.73) down the stretch in 2009. “That’s what he’s working towards,” said Scioscia, the Angels’ manager. Kazmir’s salary jumps to $12 million in 2011, the last guaranteed year on his contract.

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