I wrote a little bit about A.J. Burnett late last week. The article is here, and it’s about the significance to the Pittsburgh Pirates of Burnett deciding to either retire or return to Pittsburgh for another go. I figured it would be a hugely significant decision either way, and I wrote it like that because things appeared like that: The most recent word was that Burnett would either come back for the same team or hang it up for good to spend time with his family. There was no real indication Burnett would be willing to consider other employers if he returned.
So Travis Sawchik brought some news on Tuesday. The good news for the Pirates: Burnett intends to pitch in 2014. The bad news for the Pirates: Burnett intends to explore other organizations. Which doesn’t mean he’s written the Pirates off, but now they’ll have competition. Burnett’s officially a pursuable free-agent now, and while he could still end up back in the same uniform, he’s got his eyes and ears open. And that changes a whole lot of things.
Or maybe it just changes one thing — that being the market for free-agent starting pitching. But then that market is important to a handful of players and to a handful of teams. There are two big things to consider. For one, the Pirates declined to extend to Burnett a qualifying offer, so he can be signed without the sacrifice of a draft pick. And secondly, Burnett might suddenly be the best free-agent starter left. Where the rest of baseball was thinking about Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Bronson Arroyo and a few others, Burnett might be the best bet to have a good year in 2014.
But…. Burnett’s old! Totally. He’s had elbow problems in the very distant past. With age comes a certain degree of unpredictability, and every passing day brings Burnett closer to the day on which he can no longer throw successfully in the major leagues. Yet Arroyo’s just as old. Santana’s a year removed from being a salary dump by a team in need of starting pitching. Jimenez is a year removed from being a mechanical mess with almost triple-digit walks. On the remaining market, there’s security and dependability to be found nowhere. What we do have are performance numbers, and they paint a certain picture.
Burnett seemed to turn his career around when he landed with the Pirates a couple seasons ago. Over that span, he made 61 starts. Among starters, he ranked in the top tenth in WAR. He was also in the top tenth in adjusted FIP and xFIP, and only three other starters generated a higher groundball rate. If ace pitchers get strikeouts while limiting walks and dingers, Burnett has recently done two of the three, and it’s not like his walks have been out of control. Around his Pirates numbers, you find the names of other really good pitchers.
Santana and Jimenez are looking to cash in on really successful 2013 campaigns. Burnett beat them in Wins Above Replacement. And Burnett was also good in 2012, when Santana and Jimenez were wrecks. if you care more about looking forward than about looking back, well, for one thing, a big part of looking forward is looking back. But also, Burnett is projected to be the best starter out of the free-agent pool, at least according to Steamer. Santana and Jimenez are projected to be fine, but Burnett is projected to be legitimately good.
That’s enough about math; enough about projections. We can be satisfied just calling the starters reasonably good. Burnett stands to be a shorter-term acquisition, but that kind of works to a team’s benefit more than detriment with free agents older than 30. And as noted, Burnett doesn’t have the draft pick attached the way that Santana and Jimenez do. Teams are valuing those draft picks highly, maybe too highly, and that’s a reason why Matt Garza signed first. That’s a reason why some teams have looked at Arroyo as an alternative. Give up a pick for a free-agent, and you’re basically getting the player for money and a prospect. Burnett would require no such prospect.
It might scare some teams off that Burnett only turned things around when he returned to the National League. There’s some potential legitimacy in that concern. One might also recall that Burnett spent 2013 pitching to quality catcher Russell Martin, and Martin is documented to be an excellent framer. But Burnett was also successful in 2012 pitching to Rod Barajas, so it’s not like framing can explain away everything. Burnett has pitched well to a good catcher and to a bad one.
One thing we don’t know is just how open Burnett will be to pitching somewhere other than Pittsburgh. If he wants to stay in the vicinity of his family on the East Coast, he’s probably not bolting for Seattle or Oakland. He’s not a true free-agent in the usual sense of the term. But if he’s willing to pitch for other teams then that’s obviously somewhat bad news for Santana and Jimenez and the rest, because he represents increased supply with constant demand. He might now be another option for the Toronto Blue Jays. He’s clearly an option for the Baltimore Orioles. The Philadelphia Phillies have been rumored, and there are others who could check in. At the top of the class, Santana and Jimenez have a little less leverage because now there’ll be a little less desperation.
The thought that keeps crossing my mind is that the Orioles could somewhat salvage a nothing offseason by plucking Burnett out of free agency. He’s better than Arroyo, he’s probably better than Santana and Jimenez, and he wouldn’t cost a pick. He’d make a bigger impact than signing Nelson Cruz or Kendrys Morales, probably, and again, he wouldn’t cost a pick. Maybe the Orioles could even swing a pair of moves, with Burnett being the more important one. That’s a team with holes on it. I don’t know how much money they really have to spend, but they seem like the most likely Option B for Burnett after the Pirates, who couldn’t even afford to offer Burnett $14 million. The Orioles might be able to make the biggest move left.
Or maybe they’ll sit it out. Or maybe Burnett will end up back with the Pirates after all. The need is there, and the Pirates are close enough to true playoff contention. The only thing we know for sure at the moment is that Burnett is going to pitch instead of retire. But as a pitcher without a current team, Burnett sure changes the look of the free-agent landscape. Somehow, A.J. Burnett, of all people, has been more consistent than the previously thought-of top of the class.
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