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Burnett on the verge of completing comeback


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c/o floridamarlins.com

 

MIAMI -- An already good situation is close to getting dramatically better for the Marlins.

The anticipated return of hard-throwing right-hander A.J. Burnett is about three weeks away. If all goes well in at least three rehab assignments, the former ace of the staff could be taking the mound at the earliest on June 2 against the Reds at Pro Player Stadium.

 

If a fourth minor-league tuneup is required, he would be penciled in for June 8 at Cleveland.

 

When Burnett returns, the Marlins will have to make a call.

 

"We're going to set up the rotation when he gets back," pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal said. "The decision will be what's best to help the team. When he comes back, somebody is out of the rotation."

 

In all probability, veteran left-hander Darren Oliver will slide into the bullpen. But that isn't automatic. Circumstances may change over the next few weeks regarding health and/or performance. The other reliever possibility likely would be Dontrelle Willis, because he's a harder thrower than Oliver and his deception would be difficult on batters if they only see him once in a game.

 

Willis, however, seems safe in the rotation.

 

The team will gather input from manager Jack McKeon, Rosenthal and general manager Admin Beinfest before making an announcement about a week before Burnett's first start.

 

"When you have a guy like A.J., you want him back no matter what the rest of the staff looks like," Rosenthal said. "You want a guy like that back. It's going to be fun seeing him out there. It will just make the staff better."

 

Recovering from Tommy John surgery, Burnett is scheduled to face his first game competition in more than a year on Tuesday in Jupiter, Fla. The 6-foot-4, 230-pounder with a 98-plus mph fastball will toss an extended spring game beginning at noon on field No. 2 at Roger Dean Stadium complex.

 

"It's a matter of facing hitters," Rosenthal said. "Right now in the 'pen, he's been pretty decent. In simulated games, he's been pretty decent. Now in a game situation with an umpire calling balls and strikes and a guy swinging the bat, that's going to be a different story."

 

After Tuesday, Burnett's next scheduled appearance is May 23 for Class A Jupiter at Brevard County. From there, he will ramp up the competition level, throwing on May 28 at either Double-A Carolina or Triple-A Albuquerque.

 

If his last four weeks of preparation are any indication, Burnett is ready to be overpowering early. He has refined his delivery, not turning his torso toward second as dramatically as he did two years ago.

 

Burnett's windup was similar to the way Kevin Brown turns slightly in the direction of second base. Now, his leg kick is slightly slanted toward second, but his upper body aligns more evenly toward the plate. The adjustment keeps his eyes on the target while adding extension, and power, to his follow-through.

 

The Marlins envision his return like adding another ace to a rotation that ranks fourth in the National League with an ERA of 3.88 heading into Tuesday's action.

 

"Obviously, you're throwing another No. 1 starter into the mix," catcher Mike Redmond said. "It's going to make for a pretty impressive five starters. It's a pretty good rotation right now anyway. It probably also will strengthen our bullpen, too, because another arm will go out there. I think it's only going to make us better."

 

Even without Burnett, the Marlins' rotation of Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, Willis, Carl Pavano and Oliver ranks among the best in the game. The foursome of Beckett, Penny, Willis and Pavano are 14-7 with a 3.16 ERA.

 

Toss Burnett into the mix, and the Marlins staff will have three pitchers with 95-plus mph fastballs: Burnett, Beckett and Penny. Pavano, who throws in the 92-93 mph range, is more crafty changing speeds.

 

Like the rest of the Marlins, Pavano is eager to see Burnett try to become the next great pitcher to battle back from Tommy John surgery.

 

"I think it puts another horse in the stable who is going to give you innings and give you quality innings, especially with A.J.'s stuff," said Pavano, who is 3-1 with a 3.26 ERA. "He's electric. Two years ago he led the league in everything. It's going to be really good to have that competitive nature, too. He's so competitive. He brings so much more than just his ability to the rotation. He brings a lot of attitude and everything else. I look forward to watching him pitch."

 

In 2002, Burnett was blossoming into one of the dominant young pitchers in the league. His five shutouts were tops in the Major Leagues, as well as a Marlins' season record. He finished tied for third in the league with seven complete games. It might have been more had he not suffered an elbow injury in late August that kept him out about a month.

 

Still, he finished the year with 203 strikeouts in 204 1/3 innings. He went 12-9 with a 3.30 ERA on a team that was 79-83.

 

In Spring Training of last season, he reinjured the elbow and appeared in just four regular-season games, posting an 0-2 record with a 4.70 ERA.

 

With his tremendous velocity and sweeping breaking pitches, Burnett can be unhittable. Actually, he was once in 2001. On May 12 of that season, the effectively wild right-hander tossed a no-hitter against the Padres. Making the accomplishment more impressive is the fact he was able to hold San Diego hitless while walking nine with seven strikeouts.

 

When he is on, he potentially is the best pitcher on the staff.

 

But because he hasn't thrown in an actual game in more than a year, he doesn't know what to expect when he rejoins the team.

 

"I haven't been in a game yet, under the lights and with the crowd," Burnett said. "But they say your control is the last thing to come through all this. I've been fine so far. Obviously, I haven't overdone it. I've been nice and easy and staying within myself. That's the key. I know I'm strong. I know my arm is stronger than it was. It's just not overdoing it until I'm ready to come up here."

 

 

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

 

I know our members from North Carolina are hoping he'll make that May 28th start in NC, and Jburque is probably hoping he'll come to Albuquerque. Should be an interesting couple of weeks, I know we'll all be keeping a close eye on the situation.

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The bandwagon doesnt know whats about to hit them when AJ returns LOL.

 

Beckett, Penny, Dontrelle, Pavano, Burnett....Jesus Christ.

 

If Beckett stops eating crap, Penny,Dontrelle, and Pavano keep on pitching the way they have been, and Burnett returns strong.... F the sCrUBS rotation

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