Free Agent Values: A.J. Burnett

Perhaps one of the more enigmatic pitchers on the free agent market this winter is A.J. Burnett. When he signed his $55 million contract with the Blue Jays three years ago, people derided it as a disaster for a headcase with injury problems. However, after a couple of solid seasons where he mostly avoided the disabled list and pitched pretty well, the contract became too much of a bargain and Burnett opted out in order to get a bigger paycheck this winter.

How much should teams spend for Burnett’s future, though? Let’s go through the calculations one more time.

Thanks to the new Marcel projections that were just added to the site last night, we can estimate Burnett’s 2009 performance pretty easily. Marcel projects him at 187 innings with a 3.87 FIP for next year, but we’ll round that to 190 innings and a 3.90 FIP just to make the math easier. Once again, we’re going to use a 5.50 FIP as replacement level for a starter and cap his innings at 160, and use a 4.50 FIP as replacement level for a reliever, who will make up the 30 inning difference. So here are the totals that we’re projecting:

Burnett: 190 innings, 82 runs allowed
Replacement Level Starter: 160 innings, 98 runs allowed
Replacement Level Reliever: 30 innings, 15 runs allowed

We’re projecting the replacement level pitchers to allow 113 runs, or 31 more than what we’re projecting for Burnett. That would translate to +3 wins for whoever signs him. We can once again add a bit of a bonus to account for his extra innings saving the bullpen, so let’s call Burnett a +3.3 win pitcher.

3.3 wins * 5.5 million per win = $18.15 million in projected 2009 value. We again factor in a 10% discount rate to make up for the fact that he’s going to get a long term deal, and that gives us an annual average value of $16.4 million. Given Burnett’s history, it’s unlikely he’ll get more than four or five years. That puts his projected contract at 4 years/$66 million or 5 years/$82 million.

Those numbers match up fairly well with what the rumors have pegged his price tag at. It seems unlikely that Burnett will be either a huge bargain or a big albatross this winter.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

9 Responses to “Free Agent Values: A.J. Burnett”

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  1. Nice post, but I’m wondering where you got the $5.5M/WAR figure. If there’s another post where you make the case for it, can you direct me to it? The reason I ask is because on my “salary chart,” I follow Tom Tango in having $4.84M/WAR as market value (it was 4.4 last year).

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  2. Dave Cameron says:

    It was $4.4 + $400,000 last year – the marginal value was $4.4, but league minimum players aren’t free, so you have to factor in the cost of a replacement level player in the calculation. Factoring in 10% inflation gets us to 4.84 + $400,000, but this is an historically awesome free agent class, so I think we’re going to see an even higher rate than normal, given the talent available.

    If you want, feel free to adjust the number down if you’re more comfortable with another number, but I think $5.5 million per win will end up being pretty close this winter.

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  3. Conballs says:

    Dave – How do you factor in injury history? I know Burnett will surpass 190 innings if he makes 30 starts, but the fact that he only made 46 starts between ’06 and ’07, and only had one other season of 30+ GS, how does one factor that in? Does anyone really believe Burnett will throw over 900 innings over a five-year contract? He threw 850 innings over the last 5 seasons (averaging about 173 innings the last 3 seasons). What makes us think that number will increase now that he’s 32 on Opening Day?

    Is the fact that the contract would not factor in market inflation over the course of the term enough to account for wear, tear and injury concerns?

    Is there an adjustment for injury history? Please post the link if I have missed out.

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  4. Dave Cameron says:

    The 190 IP forecast came from the Marcel projection, which uses the last three years of data to forecast playing time. In general, projecting playing time going forward is very hard. No one does a great job of it. The Marcel projections are about as good as it gets.

    The nice thing about these calculations is that you can just adjust them if you feel like there’s a specific issue. If you think Burnett should only be projected at 170 innings, just swap out the numbers and do the math. You’ll find that it lowers Burnett’s value by a couple of runs.

    And yes, MLB teams have a history of giving out long term deals at something like 90% of current value, which means that the underlying assumption is that future inflation will counteract almost all the risks of decline in performance and health. I’d argue that assumption is usually wrong, and that long term deals for most players have been a bad idea more often than not, but because that’s how MLB teams work, that’s the context we have to work in.

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  5. Tom Au says:

    Basically, Burnett would be another Andy Pettite, more or less, both in salary and in performance.

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  6. Matt says:

    Man, this guys WHIP hovered close to 1.40 most of the season. A late season hot streak got his numbers to ‘respectable’ levels, but not a Cy Young candidate by any means.

    I believe his current contract isn’t a bargain, but fair. Any higher is assuming a ton of risk with AJ and his million dollar arm, 10 cent head.

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  7. David says:

    he has great stuff, though, and there’s enough pitcher-starved teams in the majors that would be quite happy to take the risk of 3 years / $40 million or whatever. as an Orioles fan – if Burnett comes to Baltimore, he is immediately head and shoulders ahead of every other pitcher on our roster except Jeremy Guthrie. even if he “regresses” and puts up a 4.50 ERA and due to an injury pitches “only” 150 innings… that’s still better than every pitcher on our roster except Guthrie. for that much improvement, I think teams like the Orioles are willing to pay regardless of the injury risk.

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  8. Xeifrank says:

    What do your 5.50 and 4.50 FIP numbers translate to for calculating the WAR of an NL pitcher?
    vr, Xei

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  9. Kolz13 says:

    You got this one right almost to the penny.

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