The (Other) Most Important Decision Left to be Made

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:

  1. They’re moving forward as if they won’t have A.J. Burnett
  2. 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:

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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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.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Donkey Hoady
Guest
Donkey Hoady
2 years 3 months ago

Is it overly cynical to think that Burnett is just angling for a multi-year deal? I’d say that 2/$22M should be amenable to both sides. Damn fine pitcher, reasonable cost. (Could even be a bargain, despite his advancing age.)

Paul
Guest
Paul
2 years 3 months ago

2/22 would be quite a discount considering his back-to-back seasons of 3 and 4 WAR respectively.

jdbolick
Member
Member
2 years 3 months ago

It could be that he’s sore about not getting the QO, that he only wants to pitch part of the season, or that he genuinely doesn’t want to play anymore. I think if he was looking for a multi-year deal he wouldn’t be limiting himself to the Pirates or talking so much about retirement.

Justin
Guest
Justin
2 years 3 months ago

Definitely possible. Also, he could’ve just as well been sore if they DID give him the QO.

Tim Dierkes tweeted something a while ago that I found interesting.

on the date of the non QO…“Plus, I’ve heard from agents who believe a QO can be perceived as an insult in a situation like Burnett’s” FWIW…

Point is… there’s so much we just don’t know. maybe AJ will read this and see how big of a difference he could make for the bucs.

Baron Samedi
Member
Baron Samedi
2 years 3 months ago

2/44 more likely.

40/40club
Member
40/40club
2 years 3 months ago

Considering he’s 37 and coming off 2 of his best seasons, you can definitely expect regression/ decline in performance. As well, since he says it Pirates or retirement, he doesn’t really have as much leverage. 2/22 is WAY closer to what he’d be likely to get in any multi-year deal

Blount
Guest
Blount
2 years 3 months ago

“WAY” closer? The midpoint would be 33m for 2 years, or 16.5m per year. Last offseason Ryan Dempster got 2/26, I think 2/33m would easily be attainable on the open market. Now, he’s decreased his leverage by waiting, but if he opened up offers to other teams I don’t think he’d struggle to land that commitment.

Mike
Guest
Mike
2 years 3 months ago

Pirates Front Office: How DARE you, sir?!?!

Paul
Guest
Paul
2 years 3 months ago

I really don’t understand why people keep saying Volquez is a good bounceback candidate. He has consistently underperformed his FIP, and even looking at his FIP he has only produced .2, .7, -.6, 1.1, and .4 WAR the past 5 years.

tz
Guest
tz
2 years 3 months ago

Bouncing back to a 1.1 WAR means he would have some value…kind of…

Compton
Guest
Compton
2 years 3 months ago

The Pirates pitching coaches in addition to recent successes of burnett, morton, and liriano.

ClayDV
Guest
ClayDV
2 years 3 months ago

How come the Pirates didn’t extend Burnett a qualifying offer? It seems so blatantly foolish given that it’s only a 1 year commitment and he can easily be expected to out-produce $13 million in 2014. At $7 million per win, if he hits his lowest projection (Oliver at 2.3 WAR) he’ll be worth it and if he reaches his Steamer projection at 3.5 WAR he’ll be a bargain.

(Don't)Pitch To Contact
Member
(Don't)Pitch To Contact
2 years 3 months ago

The struggles of a small market team

Nathaniel Dawson
Guest
Nathaniel Dawson
2 years 3 months ago

Because if he was truly serious about his desire to pitch only for the Pirates or retire, then it made no sense for them to offer him one. They weren’t going to get the draft pick compensation anyway, and they would give up any hope of getting him for less than the QO. What they’re hoping for is that he wants to pitch in Pittsburgh badly enough that he’ll take a below market offer to do so.

Justin
Guest
Justin
2 years 3 months ago

they mightve rather had Josh Johnson at 10 million than AJ at 14 million at that point in time.

but overall i agree that Burnett is totally worth every bit of the 14 mil.

Gaupo
Guest
Gaupo
2 years 3 months ago

The lack of qualifying offer was done out of respect to AJ, not as a business decision. They’re saying “figure out if you want to play in ’14 and if that answer is yes THEN will figure out a contract”

piratesbreak500
Guest
piratesbreak500
2 years 3 months ago

It was a business decision. http://www.piratesprospects.com/2013/11/first-pitch-why-i-trust-neal-huntington.html

The Pirates basically said that they felt Burnett was more than worth the money, but that they weren’t comfortable having such a large portion of their payroll tied up into a risky asset (37 year old pitcher) when they entered the offseason with a few different needs. I.E, even though they didn’t land Loney and others, they were able to make competitive offers.

Pat
Guest
Pat
2 years 3 months ago

And yet they still didn’t spend any money in free agency other than throwing money to the NLs worst pitcher when he should have been signed on a minor league deal. Then again, I said the same about Liriano.
I just wish they’d bring in better quality competition for 1b or the outfield. Morales would be quite the fit or just trade for Duda, Moreland, or Ike already.

matt w
Guest
matt w
2 years 3 months ago

Morales is probably only quite the fit for a team that can let him DH a lot of the time. There’s no indication he can play 2/3 of a season at first. (There’s also the “not so great and costs a draft pick” issue.)

Justin
Guest
Justin
2 years 3 months ago

they *did* try to bring in Josh Johnson and James Loney and AJ Burnett though.

They didnt spend the money, but they at least attempted to. They even outbid the Padres for Josh Johnson, reportedly.

Dean Travers
Guest
Dean Travers
2 years 3 months ago

Pirates ownership was too busy fighting to change the posting system for Japanese players to screw NYY and LAD.

That Guy
Guest
That Guy
2 years 3 months ago

Great pitcher, but at 36, set a career high in K/9, and a career low in HR/9, and if you just guess at a regression to the mean, even for his own career, you don’t have to squint to see a 1.5WAR type of pitcher. $14M/year is tough to spend for that for anyone, let alone a so-called small market team like the Pirates.

Bill Andrews
Guest
Bill Andrews
2 years 3 months ago

“Great?” That’s way too generous. Solid maybe. Just ask Yankee fans how great he is. Kershaw is great. Don’t mean to be overly critical, but every announcer and commentator uses that word far too often.

That Guy
Guest
That Guy
2 years 3 months ago

Dude’s 3WAR/200IP for his career. Maybe “great” isn’t how you would describe him, but I’d think it was “great” for my team to get 3.0WAR out of a starter who went for 200IP this year.

PiratesHurdles
Guest
PiratesHurdles
2 years 3 months ago

7.0 WAR in his two years at PNC, I think you’re stretching it quite a bit to think he would only be a 1.5 win SP. 2 to 3 wins seems pretty likely. There is little question that he should have been offered a QO. Save the $5 million they spent on Volquez and the $10 million they have to pay him now and this would have been over with a long time ago.

Justin
Guest
Justin
2 years 3 months ago

I’m going down with the “volquez signing was smart” ship.

He was the only guy who was both cheap enough to still bring AJ back and justify putting him in the bullpen and with enough upside to provide FIPs around 4, 180 innings, and have a small chance at having searage serve up a Liriano Special.

and who says AJ’s decision is even about money? if it was about money, he’d be talking to other teams.

That Guy
Guest
That Guy
2 years 3 months ago

I’ll guess you’re a Pirates Fan, but be honest, if his numbers are PNC inflated, then fine. He literally posted career best numbers in two of the FIP based criteria – you HAVE to believe he’s a regression candidate. If Burnett is a PNC anomaly then that’s wonderful, but if they extended him the QO he would have signed. As it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if he signs for far less then $14M, but that’s just my uninformed guess.

John
Guest
John
2 years 3 months ago

Why does anyone take Steamer seriously? Those ‘projections’ are abysmal.

Matt
Guest
Matt
2 years 3 months ago

Agreed. And all the writers here occasionally manipulate them. For certain articles Steamer is gospel. And to fit the narrative of other articles, Steamer is “a little pessimistic” or “optimistic” or they’ll “take the over/under” or……

I think they’re real garbage projections but that’s not even the point. Using Steamer or any other projection system is pointless unless they are used consistently, at least if its used consistently the inaccuracies should at least even themselves out.

THAT said, please use anything but Steamer. They are garbage and seem to be riding the FG coattail to remain relevant. Admittedly anecdotally, but the rest of the fantasy universe seems down on Steamer and at least one other site openly challenges them and refers to them as the most inaccurate among major projection systems.

Matt
Guest
Matt
2 years 3 months ago

Say “At least” one more time….

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