A.J. Burnett or Phil Hughes to bullpen?

NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees have gone with a six-man starting rotation for nearly two weeks.

During that time, there's been a rancorous debate in Yankee land over which starters should remain in the rotation once it's pared down to five.

That debate will come to an end before Monday's game against Kansas City.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi reiterated on Friday that the Yankees will reduce their rotation from six starters to five before they take the field at Kauffman Stadium for a three-game set against the Royals.

"I think we're really pretty committed to that," he said, adding that he doesn't plan to take another rotation turn with six starters.

General manager Brian Cashman echoed Girardi, but didn't tip the Yankees' hand.

"We'll make a decision when we have to," Cashman said. "We're going to go from six to five, that's the intention, so how we get there, we'll let you know when we make that final call.

"It's either somebody going to the pen or somebody going to Triple-A. We'll make that call soon enough."

Just who gets knocked out of the rotation is unclear at this point. Cashman said the decision will be made based on the roster, individual performances and how the team feels an individual can help the team, adding that the Yankees are in a "win-now scenario."

Girardi said on Wednesday afternoon that rookie right-hander Ivan Nova has a spot. Left-handed ace CC Sabathia certainly isn't going anywhere. And all indications point to journeyman right-handers Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia remaining in the rotation.

So Girardi and the rest of the Yankees' hierarchy will likely decide between demoting either Phil Hughes or A.J. Burnett from the rotation. Either pitcher could serve a role out of the Yankees' bullpen, though Hughes is the only one with extensive experience as a reliever.

Hughes, who starts Saturday against Tampa Bay, also has a minor league option, so he could be sent to Triple-A Scranton.

Burnett, a lightning rod for Yankees fans, hasn't won since June 29. He is 0-3 with a 6.00 ERA during that stretch and hasn't won an August start in his two-plus seasons with the Yankees. He's won just four games in his past 18 starts.

However, Cashman vehemently defended Burnett on Friday, saying the media coverage on Burnett's struggles is overblown and that the inconsistent right-hander has been solid for the Yankees this season.

"We got six guys that are capable of pitching in a rotation in a playoff race and that's a good thing, so somebody has to go and we're going to make that decision, but this stuff about (how) A.J. Burnett is worthy of being ripped from the rotation is a bunch of crap," Cashman said.

The general manager said there needs to be a deeper look at Burnett's starts by looking at run support and other factors, before coming to conclusions based on his outings.

"A.J. Burnett is not pitching anywhere close to as bad as people reflect and they got him pulled out of the rotation and I just think that's a stupid reaction," Cashman said.

Cashman added that he thinks Burnett has been treated differently because of his massive contract -- a five-year, $82.5 million deal signed before the 2009 season -- and said that if anyone should be blamed for the contract, it's himself.

"Compare (Burnett) to other people," Cashman said. "Look at his start by start. Look at his run support. If you smoke the objective pipe, I think the coverage on him would be a little smoother, more accurate."

The GM said to forgive Burnett for saying yes to a contract and if those numbers weren't what they were, the perception of Burnett in the Yankees rotation would be completely different. He did say that salary will not dictate the team's evaluation of players in reference to the upcoming removal of a starter from the rotation.

"He's not pitching like a No. 2 starter," Cashman said about Burnett. "He's pitching like a quality starting pitcher in the American League, period, that can help and if you take his money out of the equation, people would try to trade for him down the stretch drive and feel good about it, let's put it that way."

Burnett appreciated the show of support from Cashman, but acknowledged that he's not happy with his performance and understands the criticism levied his way.

"I can't control people's opinions," Burnett said Friday. "
But they want me to be better. I have a big contract. I make a lot of money, so it's only fair nature.

"The bottom line is I'm 8-9, and I'll tell you before everybody else that I'm better than that. ... I'll give (my critics) some leeway. I mean, I haven't done the job.

"I've kept my team in games, yes. There are some games I should've won, yes. But have I pitched as well as A.J. Burnett should? No, I don't think I have."

As for Hughes, since he returned from the disabled list on July 5, he hasn't been able to regain the All-Star form that he flashed in the first half of 2010. He is 2-3 with a 4.55 ERA in that span (five starts, one relief appearance) with an opponent batting average of an unsightly .300.

On Friday, Girardi deflected a question about what role Hughes' Saturday start would play in the manager's ultimate decision on the rotation.

"I don't really have to make a decision until Monday. I mean we can prepare guys to start and we can do that. But I don't have to make a decision and I'm more worried about tonight," Girardi said.

Cashman would not speak on whether Hughes' past experience in the bullpen would be used in making a decision on his future in the rotation.

"I'm not going to talk about what the pros and cons are of each individual choice because I just don't think it's healthy," Cashman said. "We'll get through the weekend and we'll make a final call, and whoever goes will be grumbling whenever they go, wherever they go, whether it's the bullpen or rotation at Triple-A," Cashman said.

Ian Begley is a frequent contributor to ESPNNewYork.com. Information from ESPNNewYork.com's Matt Ehalt contributed this report