Look, I’m not one of those people who thinks that baseball season starts with pitchers and catchers reporting. There’s a whole lot of time between that date and the date at which meaningful things start to happen. But I’ll grant that we consume baseball differently upon pitchers and catchers, that it means the start of daily baseball-y updates, and the first team’s pitchers and catchers report on February 6. That’s less than two weeks away. It’s sneaked up on us, because even now there’s a lot left to happen in the offseason. We just all had to wait for Masahiro Tanaka to pick a damned hat.
The offseason’s most important decision left is the Rays’ decision to either trade or keep David Price. I don’t really even have to think about that to assert it with confidence — such a trade would make a good Rays team worse, and it would presumably make another contender better. There’d be a significant total change in 2014 playoff odds. But there’s another big decision left, and it’s bigger than Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez making up their minds. It’s a decision that affects the Pirates, and the Pirates only.
Recently, the Pirates have indicated two things:
- They’re moving forward as if they won’t have A.J. Burnett
- They sure are open to having A.J. Burnett
You probably know the deal — Burnett’s a free agent, but he’s said he’ll either go back to the Pirates or retire. There’ve been whispers about the Orioles and the Phillies, but it still seems like it’s Pittsburgh or no one. The Pirates, for whatever it’s worth, declined to extend to Burnett a qualifying offer, because they thought it too expensive. On the one hand, Burnett is a fiery competitor with plenty left in the tank. On the other hand, he, like many others, would like to spend more time with his family. At this point it seems like Burnett will hang them up, but he still hasn’t made an official choice.
Let’s make something clear about Burnett: while we don’t know what he could be in 2014, he sure has been good recently. The last two years, 123 starters have thrown at least 200 innings in the majors. Among them, Burnett ranks 22nd in WAR, 17th in FIP-, and 12th in xFIP-. He did just turn 37, so maybe you’d expect a decline. If he’s taking this long to make a decision, maybe his competitive fire has a shorter flame. But he was considerably better in 2013 than he was in 2012, and he’s still throwing quality stuff. He allowed his lowest rate of contact since 2005.
If Burnett were to pitch, it would be reasonable to expect him to be a quality starter. He’s been durable for years, and he’s been a strikeout pitcher for years, and he’s also turned into a rather extreme groundballer. I suspect he’d be worse in 2014 than David Price, but then probably not by a whole lot. And if Burnett had the better numbers, it wouldn’t be a shock.
Without Burnett, these would be the Pirates’ potential starters:
- Francisco Liriano
- Gerrit Cole
- Charlie Morton
- Wandy Rodriguez
- Jeff Locke
- Edinson Volquez
- Phil Irwin
- Brandon Cumpton
- Jeanmar Gomez
And then Jameson Taillon would be hanging around. It’s not a dreadful group, and it’s easy to see the upside. Liriano was recently awesome. Cole seemed to get better and better. Volquez is a fascinating bounceback candidate. But if you look at our projected WAR page and sort by the starting rotations, a message is conveyed. The Pirates show up seventh from the bottom. They’re as close to last place as they are to the Blue Jays. Every projection system has its own problems, but it’s pretty clear that the Pirates’ rotation could stand to be improved.
Especially given where the Pirates are overall. They might be the very definition of a bubble team, a team in the most high-leverage place on the win curve. So they’re a team that could get the biggest benefit from any kind of improvement. Odds are, the Pirates are a step behind the Cardinals, and the gap is probably wider than one A.J. Burnett. But Burnett could close the gap substantially, and he’d also improve the Pirates’ Wild Card chances. Right now they project to be similar to the Diamondbacks and the Giants and the Braves and the Nationals. If Burnett could make them better by a couple wins, that could have an enormous effect on Pittsburgh’s chances of hosting more playoff baseball. A Burnett return could make the Pirates Wild Card favorites and also a stronger NL Central threat.
Right now, the Pirates’ advantage is that they have the best outfield in baseball that doesn’t have a Mike Trout in it. Right now, the Pirates are a pretty good team, and they could go to the playoffs with the players they already have. But the competition stands to be fierce, and the statistical difference between Burnett retiring and Burnett coming back is somewhat monumental, as these things go. If you figure it’s a difference of, say, two wins, that’s a big difference for one decision to have, and the Pirates are in a particularly volatile position, or so it at least would appear.
This is a tough choice for Burnett to have control over. This is a tough choice for the Pirates to have no control over. And while other teams aren’t really involved, you can be sure that they’re paying attention. Either way, the whole National League is going to feel it.
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