A.J. Burnett: New and Best Option

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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

37 Responses to “A.J. Burnett: New and Best Option”

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  1. Spiggy says:

    One other thing about Burnett: He will likely require a shorter commitment than Jimenez or Santana.

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    • yuniform says:

      Improve your reading comprehension. “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.”

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  2. Justin says:

    In the Pirates’ defense, didn’t they say more that they were weary of giving him 14.1 because they wanted to try to do other stuff this offseason too? I don’t think it was as simple as “we can’t afford him.” but it might have been. i don’t really remember.

    Early in the offseason, Josh Johnson and James Loney were available for a similar price. The Pirates are probably better with josh johnson and james loney than with just AJ Burnett for the same price.

    The Johnsons and Loneys are gone now and AJ has now become the best use of that money. I bet he’s back in Pittsburgh for 14, plus or minus a few million.

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    • Justin says:

      yep. it wasn’t as simple as “we can’t afford him.” here’s a part of the Neal Huntington quote that most people have forgotten…

      “There is money available, but the question is how do we build around A.J.? We’ve got some other soft spots to address, and where do we go there with the money that A.J. may ultimately cost us?”

      Sounds like they would have liked to go after the Loneys of the world, but lost. Therefore, AJ may now be the optimal spending of that money.

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  3. szielinski says:

    The Pirates should have made the QO to Burnett. Not doing so may cost them 1) Burnett’s services in 2014 or 2) Burnett’s services in 2014 and a high draft pick. One could compare this loss of baseball value to the monetary loss of $5.5M, the difference between what the Pirates were reported to want to spend on Burnett and the QO dollar amount.

    How hard must the Pirates’ budget constraints need to be that the organization could not risk paying an extra $5.5M for Burnett?

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    • Justin says:

      I have to think that they just wanted to see if they could do better things with 14 million.

      Not QOing might end up being a mistake, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t have good reasons to take the risk that they did by not doing so.

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    • DD says:

      I agree, they should have made the QO. If Burnett was truly considering retirement, he would have no reason to accept, and it would be fair to the Pirates in that they would get something back should he decide to sign elsewhere. the only way it makes sense is if they really couldn’t afford him at the QO dollars.

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      • Cato the Elder says:

        If it can be granted that veteran players do not like being tendered a QO – a reasonable assertion consideting that not one player signed their QO – then there are two posdible reasons for the Pirates to not give AJ a QO that have little to do with specifically budget concerns : 1) as a sign of good faith, you said us or retirement; we believe you, tell us if/when you want to talk contracts 2) as a PR stunt for future verteran pitcher reclamation projects -something they had some success doing in recent year – namely, “hey, come rebuild your reputation in our pitcher friendly NL park, where our defensive approach and pitching philosophy can rebound your career and you can go sign that bid FA contract w/someone else.

        Of course there is a 3) it is also possible they just don’t think he is worth $14.1 million, even if they have the money.

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  4. Aaron (UK) says:

    As per Mike Petriello’s article, the Nationals look a very attractive option for Burnett, assuming they’re interested.

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  5. Rockshu says:

    We loved him in Toronto when he was here in 2006/2007/2008, and I think just about every Blue Jays fan would love to have him back for another push.

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    • Pirates Hurdles says:

      Seems unlikely that he would go anywhere other than Pit, Bal, Was, or Phi. Keep in mind that AJ and his agent have said nothing thus far. I still think he’ll sign in Pittsburgh, but we shall see.

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    • ABsteve says:

      Too bad about the tens of thousands of morons who booed him like he invented VD, for daring to opt out for ridiculous money. We have a dipshit fanbase..they sure can boo though.

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  6. Leo Walter says:

    Check Burnette’s numbers out for August and September,then get back to me please.

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    • Jason B says:

      Good point. Astute FG readers know that those games from April through July do not really count toward the final standings.

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    • Pirates Hurdles says:

      August and September when his xFIP was 2.70 and 2.61?

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      • bdhumbert says:

        The wild card in his analysis is probably that he knows that he is a VERY good pitcher at PNC – the xFIP there is 2.59 and ranked him 6th – just a fraction off of the 2.41 posted by #1 Felix Hernandez.

        If he wants to win – and the evidence is he is VERY competitive he works a deal with the Pirates – very likely leveraging the current rumblings in the fan base about the Bucs returning to “cheap” mode for something like $15/$16M.

        I really think the Pirates goofed by not offering him – but they may have done him a huge favor – he now is a viable alternative for a number of teams without the draft pick penalty.

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    • jim says:

      you mean when his strand rate plummeted to the mid 60% range despite mid 2s FIPs and xFIPs?

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  7. Vince says:

    Good work, Leo. Dickish AND factually hogwash. Impressive.

    Let’s go for the trifecta – did you type it naked?

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  8. jim says:

    somehow i get the feeling he really wouldn’t want to go back to the division that effectively chewed him up and spit him out. burnett should stay in pittsburgh

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  9. triple_r says:

    Without taking injuries into account, Burnett is far and away the best pitcher available. The problem is, players — especially pitchers — get hurt, and Burnett has a 52.1% chance of hitting the DL in 2014, fifth-highest among all starting pitchers. This percentage will likely increase for the following year, as he’s not getting any younger. 2 years and $24 million, max.

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  10. shibboleth says:

    Camden wouldn’t be the worst place for his xGB ways. I think he’s got enough in the tank for one more quality season, but it will be Pittsburgh again.

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  11. Dave says:

    He’s had a strange career, WAR-wise. His four seasons with 4+ WAR are 2002, 2005, 2008 and 2013. How’s that for consistency?

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  12. rzt101 says:

    I call he goes to the Jays. Not in the close vicinity of Maryland, but close enough. He was already a Jay and had success there. Just seems like he doesn’t want to go to a new environment. Miami sure as hell not gonna sign him, Pittsburgh may not afford him, and the Yankees… yeah.

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  13. Steve says:

    I will add that Burnett pitched to Russell Martin in 2011, and not well.

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  14. Utah Dave says:

    I think they didn’t make a QO because the Pirates’ front office thought he was either (a) going to retire or (b) come back and pitch for only the Pirates. They may have thought that because, at least in the media, that was what he was purported to have said. In retrospect perhaps that was a naive approach to take. I want to believe that AJ meant what he allegedly said. But I also don’t want to look like I just fell off the turnip truck either.

    I agree that if he really is on an open market he is the best choice available. I can’t see anyone feeling too comfortable about making Santana or Jiminez multi-year offers in the $12MM per year area.

    As a Pirates fan I do hope AJ pitches in black and gold this year. I don’t see Edinson Volquez as Francisco Liriano 2.0. I also think picthing half your games in PNC might help a little bit.

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    • Justin says:

      Since Volquez was in PETCO, we probably can’t use the ballpark argument :(….

      BUT his FIPS and xFIPS, his durability, and most importantly, his STUFF, are all promising.

      xFIPs say that all he needs is a luck change in order to be in the 4 ERA range. his stuff combined with another Ray Searage miracle is what could make him another Liriano.

      but before any huge mechanical fix, he is very capable of 180 innings of 4 ERA ball.

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  15. Steve says:

    Did the Pirates just forget that AJ was making $16.5M last year because they were only paying $11.5M of that?

    I mean, he certainly didn’t do anything to deserve a pay cut, so the QO was a no brainer.

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  16. Utah Dave says:

    Therefore Neil Huntington is without a brain. No other feasible explanation.

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  17. Inspector Gadget says:

    Everything public from the Pirates front office seems to boil down to “We’d love to have him back, but we’re not counting on it,” despite statements that Burnett was continuing to work out in preparation to pitch. I feel like this translates to, “He’s already rejected the best offer we care to make, so it’s on him to change his mind.” Given this news, I would actually be more surprised if he ends up with the Pirates next year than if he were to join the Orioles or Phillies. If he does go back to Pittsburgh, it’s because they upped their offer substantially, which they seem unlikely/unwilling to do.

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  18. pft says:

    Every AL team, especially those in the East should avoid AJ and Arroyo. They are ok in the NL, maybe better than Ok, but the hitters parks in the AL East coupled with the DH are too much for them

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  19. Johnny Baseball says:

    A one year redemption contact with the Yankees sure would be entertainment.

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