Prospect Retro: A.J. Burnett
A.J. Burnett was drafted by the New York Mets in the eighth round in 1995, out of high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Your basic raw thrower with a good arm, he posted a 4.28 ERA and a 26/23 K/BB in 34 innings of rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League. He'd rate a Grade C prospect at this stage, possessing impressive arm strength but needing a lot of refinement to succeed at higher levels.
Promoted to Kingsport in the Appy League in 1996, he posted a 3.88 ERA in 58 innings, allowing just 31 hits while striking out 68. Excellent K/IP and H/IP ratios. But he walked 54 guys and threw 16 wild pitches, inflating his ERA dramatically from what it would otherwise be. His arm strength was excellent, but his lack of command kept him off prospect lists: he didn't make the Baseball America Top 10 Prospects for the Appy League, although four of his Kingsport teammates (Grant Roberts, Brett Herbison, Andy Zwirchitz, and Pee Wee Lopez) did. He'd likely rate as a "Grade C with higher potential if he ever throws strikes" nowadays.
Burnett moved up to the New York-Penn League in 1997, posting a 4.70 ERA in 44 innings. He gave up just 28 hits while striking out 48, but again command hurt him as he walked 35 and gave up 9 wild pitches. Still a Grade C with potential if his command comes around.
That command came around in 1998. Traded to the Marlins in the Al Leiter deal, Burnett went to Kane County in the Midwest League and thrived, posting a 10-4, 1.97 mark in 119 innings, with a 186/45 K/BB and allowing just 74 hits. K/BB, K/IP, H/IP all were excellent. He refined his breaking ball and changeup, and in general just threw a lot more strikes than he did in the Mets system. I rated him as a Grade B+ prospect, and as the Number 35 overall prospect in baseball and as the Number 13 pitcher.
Burnett took a step backwards in 1999. He almost made the major league rotation in spring training. But the Marlins wisely decided that jumping a pitcher from the Midwest League to the majors wasn't a great idea. They sent him to Double-A to get his feet wet against advanced hitters, but Burnett didn't like the idea, throwing tantrums and pitching poorly early in the season, getting surly and acting like an immature brat at times. His control went backwards, and he went 6-12, 5.52 in 121 innings. He struck out 121 guys, but he also gave up 132 hits and walked 74 men. Interestingly, despite his poor behavior, the Marlins decided to give him a major league trial late in the year, and he responded to the show of confidence, going 4-2, 3.48 in 7 starts. I kept his grade at B+ heading into 2000, ranking him at Number 37 overall and Number 15 as a pitcher.
Injuries limited Burnett to 13 major league starts in 2000. Durability and command have remained a problem for him, but when healthy he can be quite dominant. His current record is 59-58, 3.77 in 989 innings, with an 871/416 K/BB ratio. Similar pitchers historically include David Palmer, Erik Hanson, and Jim Lonborg, all successful (if erratic) pitchers.
As a prospect, Burnett always showed outstanding K/IP and H/IP ratios, reflecting his quality stuff and physical ceiling. His track record overall was quite mixed. Most of the time he struggled with his command, but the one season that he showed good control in the minors (1998) he was unstoppable.