Why Do The Pirates Want A.J. Burnett?

First of all, yes, I’ll admit it: I’m eating my words right now. After writing my aggressively-headlined “Good Luck Shopping A.J. Burnett, Yanks” piece on Wednesday, it turns out the Yankees have found at least one potential suitor for Burnett in the Pirates. The two sides are still haggling over how much money the Yankees should eat, but considering the Yankees’ incentive to get rid of Burnett, it seems likely that a deal will happen eventually.

Trading Burnett is a no-brainer for the Yankees; they would be freeing up payroll space while simultaneously opening up a spot in their rotation for Phil Hughes or Freddy Garcia. But why would the Pirates be interested in adding Burnett?

As it turns out, the Pirates are in a unique predicament that makes them one of the few teams in the majors in a position to add Burnett. They have a weak rotation, headlined by the enigmatic Charlie Morton (who had off-season surgery and is doubtful for the beginning of the season) and the injury-prone Erik Bedard, and they have been rebuffed by numerous free agent pitchers this offseason. They offered Edwin Jackson a three-year deal, but he turned it down in favor of taking a one-year deal with the Nationals; they also attempted to woo Roy Oswalt, but he has limited his search to a handful of contending teams.

Burnett is no Oswalt or Jackson. He has upside in Pittsburgh’s park — which is considerably less home-run-prone than Yankee Stadium — but he’s still only a +2 to +3 win pitcher who is under contract for two more seasons. He’s not the final piece that will allow them to put together a competitive team, and he’s not going to be able to compensate for the other holes in the Pirates’ rotation. He’s an improvement and will likely come at a good value — although the Yankees had better be ready to pony up more dough — but why are the Pirates spending their resources on a mediocre upgrade?

Teams that have struggled for a long period of time have a vicious cycle holding them down, making it difficult for them to become contenders. Losing teams generally have weaker revenue streams than successful teams, and they face the added challenge of the top free agents typically don’t want to go to a perpetually losing team, even if they are offering boatloads of money.

Based on this offseason’s progression, it seems like the Pirates are stuck in that position. They have some exciting young position players, but they desperately need to add pitching depth if they want to take their club to the next level. And even if A.J. Burnett doesn’t solve all their problems, he’s got three things going for him: he’s a step in the right direction, he’ll come at a fair value, and he isn’t going to say no. Even an incremental upgrade might make it more likely that the next player the Pirates pursue will say yes.



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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.


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Preston
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Preston
4 years 6 months ago

For the Pirates it would be a huge step forward just to be able to finish .500, AJ throwing 200 innings of around a 4.5 ERA (if his HR problem is mitigated by leaving the AL East and YS) then they may be able to do that. If nothing else it might help convince Andrew Mccutchen to take an extension and stay in Pitt.

johnnycuff
Member
johnnycuff
4 years 6 months ago

because kevin correia is the 5th starter

luckygoon
Member
luckygoon
4 years 6 months ago

Why do I think BUrnett is going to bust out if he goes somewhere where people don’t watch baseball?

Peter R
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Peter R
4 years 6 months ago

He will prob rock socks.

rational human
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rational human
4 years 6 months ago

i think the home run prevention will help more

Yirmiyahu
Member
4 years 6 months ago

Will dumping Burnett really free up payroll space for the Yankees? He’s had a replacement level ERA over the last two years. If he were a free agent on the open market, what would he get for a contract? $1M/1 year? How much of his contract will they be paying for?

Preston
Guest
Preston
4 years 6 months ago

Did you see the Bruce Chen contract? The Indians are paying 5 million per for Derek Lowe. AJ would probably have gotten 2 years for 8-10 million this off-season.

rbt
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rbt
4 years 6 months ago

Both Bruce Chen and (especially) Derek Lowe have been more valuable pitchers than AJ Burnett for the past two seasons.

Preston
Guest
Preston
4 years 6 months ago

Bruce Chen and Burnett have provided the exact same value the last two years (and that has been the best two years of Chen’s career and the worst of Burnett’s) and although Lowe has been more valuable he’s significantly older and moving to the more difficult league. If you value 1 win at about 4 million then Burnett has been worth close to 12 million the last two years so 8-10 million for the next two years would be a fair contract.

RC
Guest
RC
4 years 6 months ago

WAR/$$ valuations for starting pitchers are a bit absurd. Fangraphs thinks John Lackey last year, the worst full time starter in history was worth $7M.

Yirmiyahu
Member
4 years 6 months ago

I admit my initial instinct about Burnett’s market value was too low, but we definitely shouldn’t be using fWAR here. Teams may be smart enough to use advanced metrics to decide who is a regression candidate, but the fact is that free agent prices are still driven by ERA. And, looking at ERA, Burnett’s been about replacement level. Using bWAR, he’s only been good for 0.6 WAR over the past two seasons. Yet the Pirates are considering paying $10M/2 plus a prospect.

Look at other mediocre innings eaters this offseason:
Bruce Chen: 2-year bWAR of 4.6, $9M/2 (and called the 9th worst transaction of the offseason by Dave Cameron)
Joe Saunders: 2.4 bWAR, $6M/1
Paul Maholm: 3.0 bWAR, $4.75M/1
Freddy Garcia: 5.5 bWAR, $4M/1
Livan Hernandez: 3.2 bWAR, minor league contract
Aaron Cook: 0.8 bWAR, minor league contract
Joel Piñeiro: 1.5 bWAR, minor league contract

bstar
Guest
bstar
4 years 6 months ago

Do you really think any team in MLB is using FIP to determine a pitcher’s worth? It’s ridiculous.

Garrett
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Garrett
4 years 6 months ago

Yes?

Preston
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Preston
4 years 6 months ago

I think most teams are looking at both ERA and FIP to project a pitchers worth.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
4 years 6 months ago

Not the Dodgers. The signed Aaron Harang for 2/12, and he was only worth anything near that if you look at his ERA.

Marty
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Marty
4 years 6 months ago

Seems like Burnett is certainly due for a good bit of positive regression. If they take on $8m of his contract, that seems like a good move even if he only puts up 2 more +1.5 seasons. And even then, he’s going to pitching ~half his starts in Pitt and many against the NL Central, which is a ways away from the AL East in terms of quality of hitters.

Matthias
Member
Member
4 years 6 months ago

A division that just lost Pujols, Fielder, and Braun for 50 days…among others.

Though any pitcher that pitches in the NL Central is going to enjoy the lack of good hitting, so that isn’t really an advantage from a value standpoint. Just a bonus for Burnett that might keep his ERA artificially low for one final payday.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas
4 years 6 months ago

any big leaguer at any position is going to benefit from playing in the NL Central. I’m surprised Jacksond didn’t go there and I’ll be surprised is Oswalt doesn’t. It’s a weak division where you can raise your stats.

madmagrone
Member
madmagrone
4 years 6 months ago

What is the talk of what the Yankees will be getting in return, besides the added benefit of not having to start Burnett?

Tom
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Tom
4 years 6 months ago

Teams might not be using FIP, but some teams may see a 17% HR/FB ratio and realize that may be artificially inflating the ERA a bit last year?

Tom
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Tom
4 years 6 months ago

Reply fail.. sorry

Spike
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Spike
4 years 6 months ago

if I were the Bucs, I’d much rather try and get Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis than AJB. For a team that is a longshot to contend to go and use $8M to $10M on a SP long past his peak is not a good move.

TheUncool
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TheUncool
4 years 6 months ago

Except they’d probably have to give up a good prospect or two for Niemann, and they still won’t be ready to win the division soon enough.

Wade Davis probably isn’t that much better than Burnett, if at all, and he’s too unknown (in the mainstream) to help in those other intangible/off-the-field kind of ways mentioned in the article.

Preston
Guest
Preston
4 years 6 months ago

Except that the Rays would rather keep both of them then give them up for nothing. AJ will come for just money something the Pirates couldn’t give away to FAs this off-season. The Pirates need all of their prospects and shouldn’t trade any of them to try and win now, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t look for other ways to try and win now.

w.k.kortas
Guest
4 years 6 months ago

I agree, but it’s tough to see where the Pirates and Rays would match up well in a deal. If the Pirates are going to leverage their young pitching, there’s no reason at this time to do so on back-of-the rotation types. If they can get Burnett for $5 mil a year without giving up any useful prospects, it’s not a horrible gamble.

Barkey Walker
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Barkey Walker
4 years 6 months ago

It is funny how FG has never noticed this effect before. Why are the Nats upgrading to 85ish wins? So that they can actually sign a great free agent next winter and get to 90ish wins. Once you’ve won 90, then you might be able to sign a few more top FAs and be in the top two in the NL East.

Ari Collins
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Ari Collins
4 years 6 months ago

Yes, FG is one voice in total agreement that a winning team does not attract free agents.

/facepalm

adohaj
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adohaj
4 years 6 months ago

That’s not what he said Ari

/facepalm

BX
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BX
4 years 6 months ago

or Bryce Harper starts mashing everything, and there’s your 90+ win team.

Oskar
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Oskar
4 years 6 months ago

According to Heyman, the Yankees asked for Garrett Jones, but the Pirates refused. Rumor is now Jones is not in the deal and the teams are haggling over money. No word on the player(s) involved.

Vegemitch
Member
Vegemitch
4 years 6 months ago

Wouldn’t surprise me to see Burnett leave NY and go all Javy Vazquez on the NL. I am not a Pirates fan but I live near Pittsburgh and there is definitely a good fun vibe about the team and a lot of enthusiasm even with low expectations. If they get a .500 season the reaction would be akin to most teams making the playoffs.

That and the ballpark is beautiful, perhaps the best in MLB. Would be a nice one to visit for those who like to go on the road to see their team once in a while.

B N
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B N
4 years 6 months ago

Agreed. They’ve gone so long without a winning season, just getting a winning record would be pretty exciting.

ChrisFromBothell
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ChrisFromBothell
4 years 6 months ago

Is the Pirates’ farm deep enough in potentially really good position players, that they could seek out the AAA equivalent of a Pineda for Montero sort of thing?

johnnycuff
Member
johnnycuff
4 years 6 months ago

no, the pirates farm system is light on position prospects, save starling marte and 2012 draftee josh bell. there are a good number of pitching prospects but mostly at the lower levels.

Mingy
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Mingy
4 years 6 months ago

grossman, sanchez

Colin
Guest
Colin
4 years 6 months ago

Isn’t Burnett basically John Lannan at this point? Sure, a team can hope for a motivated 3+ WAR player, but he seems to have regressed to a 1-1.5 WAR pitcher, who will throw about 180 innings. This is exactly who Lannan is.
Burnett is owed $33 million – $(whatever the yankees eat) for two years.
Lannan is owed $5 million this season, and has one arbitration year left.
Even holding aside the issues of age and durability (which both point to Lannan), is the likely higher cost for Burnett really worthwhile? Perhaps if its at $7-8 mill/yr and only for a middling prospect. Is the prospect cost for Lannan really likely to be substantially higher?
This is why I’m confused. (Not that one move should impact the other. The Pirates really could use a couple of serviceable inning eaters.)

TheUncool
Guest
TheUncool
4 years 6 months ago

John Lannan doesn’t have the kind of upside that Burnett still has (as can be seen in his peripherals).

If both regress significantly, Burnett will definitely perform better than Lannan.

As someone else suggested earlier, Burnett could end up doing (more or less) what Javier Vazquez did when he left the Yankees. Definitely would not be the first time a formerly quality SP perform much better after leaving the Yanks, especially in a move to the NL.

Meanwhile, Lannan seems to just be tiptoe-ing on thin ice…

Steve
Guest
Steve
4 years 6 months ago

Perhaps if its at $7-8 mill/yr and only for a middling prospect

This is a likely outcome.

Is the prospect cost for Lannan really likely to be substantially higher?

Maybe not substantially, but probably higher.

Vegemitch
Member
Vegemitch
4 years 6 months ago

I think the cost to acquire Lannan would be higher than to acquire Burnett and the difference in $/yr would be about the same. I don’t think the Yanks are going to be able to avoid eating $20million of that contract and the Pirates won’t have to give anything of value. To acquire Lannan they’d probably get no salary relief and give up a B prospect. Or Peter Bourjos.

Tom
Guest
Tom
4 years 6 months ago

He was a 1.5 WAR player…. with a 17% HR/FB ratio And this is why you should not be using FIP based WAR as a forecast tool without looking at the peripherals.

John Lannan has never exceeded 1.5 WAR in his career… AJ has been at or above that 9 out of 10 years. While he is clearly in a decline phase of his career, he has upside over what he’s posted the last few years; Lannan doesn’t appear to have any and if he gets an arbitration raise next year may end uo costing more than AJ.

chuckb
Guest
chuckb
4 years 6 months ago

Burnett has a swinging strike rate of about 10%. Even in the last 2 seasons, that’s where it’s been. Lannan’s, for his career, is about 6%. Huge difference. Which one would you want, all things equal?

RobBob
Guest
RobBob
4 years 6 months ago

All things are not equal. Peripherals aside, Lannan’s been a better pitcher the last few years, and he’s been steady, so the notion that he’s going to “regress” doesn’t really hold water.

Preston
Guest
Preston
4 years 6 months ago

AJ Burnett has been worth 2.9 WAR over the last two seasons, John Lannan has been worth 2.4. John Lannan’s best season was 1.4, last year when AJ was “terrible” he was worth 1.5. AJ pitches in a pressure cooker, in the hardest division in baseball, in one of the toughest parks for a RHP to pitch in. Lannan is in the NL where he gets to throw to pitchers, has no expectations and is in a very pitcher friendly park. There is no real argument that Lannan is better other than he’s younger.

Oliver
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Oliver
4 years 6 months ago

Burnett turns it around in the NL in the first half, they flip him to a contender because he’s got a reasonable salary once the Yankees have eaten most of it.

Hurtlockertwo
Guest
Hurtlockertwo
4 years 6 months ago

20 consecutive years of losing make everything seem positive.

Pat
Guest
Pat
4 years 6 months ago

I agree, if they Pirates really want to get better, they’ll take a chance on a player with real upside instead of all these deeply flawed stopgap vets they sign. Guys like Barmes and Barajas are ok but won’t really make a difference in the W/L column much.

They need to take a risk and since they can’t sign any FA pitchers, they should trade for a good young pitcher. If they were able to get a Gio Gonzalez type pitcher, it would be huge for them because it’s a big upgrade now and when the reserve of young arms comes to the majors.

I wouldn’t mind seeing them make a play for Brett Anderson of the A’s if he shows any sign of being healthy.

Keith
Guest
4 years 6 months ago

If Pittsburgh (or someplace that isn’t Yankee Stadium) gets the Steve Trout out of AJ’s stats, the result is 4 WAR. Alternatively the Bucs get what they pay for. A plunger isn’t sexy, but it comes in handy.

hernandez17
Member
hernandez17
4 years 6 months ago

If NYY eats the bulk of his salary, AJ’s upside is still 220 IP 200 K, he’s not that old and his peripherals don’t suggest a ton of skill erosion. Although I’m not sure I buy the “getting him out of Yankee Stadium” argument, since NL Central parks are far from pitcher friendly. I like the idea of giving him three bounceback months and then flipping him for prospects. As far as potential veteran innings-eaters go, Burnett is likely to be their most cost effective option. Bucs fans have to be loving the fact that they’ve got the best pitching-prospect duo in baseball right now. Burnett gives them a bit more hope of competing until they arrive.

Preston
Guest
Preston
4 years 6 months ago

It’s not like AJ will be blocking better options. All of the Pirates elite pitching prospects are years away. Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton and company are an uninspiring bunch. But if Eric Bedard and AJ Burnett can have a good season, they’ll win some games and get some excitement. Plus if they are out of it they could flip two cheap veterans to a contender for some value. This makes a lot of sense for them.

hernandez17
Member
hernandez17
4 years 6 months ago

I don’t know about *years* away. Cole and Taillon are both pretty polished as far as recent draftees go. They could make appearances in 2012, but getting AJ would allow them to be groomed at a more leisurely pace.

Tom
Guest
Tom
4 years 6 months ago

How excited did folks get when the Pirates got off to a good start last year and folks were talking about whether this would be the year they would break .500

While the goal is to get to the playoffs where anything can happen, for a team like the Pirates which has been bad for so long I think there is some value in taking incremental steps to “compete” for even just a .500 record.

It sounds like they will not give up much prospect/player-wise so why not take a shot at a guy who looks like will cost 4-5mil per and has a decent chance of putting up more value than that. And as someone mentioned above if he really turns it around in his first year you have a guy who you can then turn around and flip in the right situation.

Slacker George
Guest
Slacker George
4 years 6 months ago

Is it possible that the net return of buying an additional win for poor teams is negative and that these teams shouldn’t be shooting for 75 or 81 or 82 wins, but should use the money to get to 90 wins? This goes to the cycle the author spoke about.

Are poor teams passing through the 81 win threshold to that 90 win goal using the A.J. Burnetts or McGehees of the world or are they doing it from within?

JRoth
Guest
JRoth
4 years 6 months ago

The Pirates need to gain ~40 wins between 2010 and 2014 if they want to win a division with Andrew McCutchen. I’d argue that you need to pursue more than one path to accumulate than many wins.

I’d add that McGehee was acquired as insurance for Pedro Alvarez, not because he’s expected to make a big difference as a starter. If PA starts 2012 below the Mendoza line, McGehee is there to step in and keep 3B from becoming a black hole. If PA hits like a #2 overall pick, then McGehee is a nice bench piece (and/or platoon partner for GFJones).

JRoth
Guest
JRoth
4 years 6 months ago

The thing to remember is that the Pirates entered this offseason with every intention of increasing payroll, but, as the article mentions, not enough FAs have been willing to sign. Which means that paying $5M per for AJB is essentially painless for them. Any other kind of trade – especially one with a 4 WAR upside and a 1+ WAR downside – will cost real prospects, and would amount to trading one lottery ticket for another.

In this trade the Pirates will give up nothing they can’t afford to lose, gain 200 innings pitched by not-Correia, and could gain 3-4 wins. In a year, I might add, when young players figure to add a handful of wins of their own (Alvarez, Presley, and Tabata could combine for 8 more wins than they put up in 2011 without surprising anyone, although of course you’d never bet on that happening).

Slacker George
Guest
Slacker George
4 years 6 months ago

Don’t forget the negative regression to the mean. The following pitchers had negative ERA-xFIP:
Morton (0.25)
Hanrahan (1.05)
Karstens (0.62)
McDonald (0.25)
McCutchen (1.02)

While the following had positive:
Lincoln 0.70
Resop 0.86
Correia 0.41

It’s disingenuous to only expect improvement.

If McCutcheon shows at least moderate improvement over the next four years and the team doesn’t do everything it can to extend him, it shows that ownership is satisfied with cashing the revenue sharing check while playing out the string in a publicly-financed stadium.

adohaj
Guest
adohaj
4 years 6 months ago

if AJ would have put up his 1.5 WAR last year playing for the pirates. He would have been their third most valuable starting pitcher. He also would have pitched the most innings of any starter. That’s why they want him. A 2 win upgrade over Kevin Correia is still 2 wins.

Bill King
Guest
4 years 6 months ago

so you mean to tell me that the Pirates are actually going to make a good move?

.. I’ll believe it when I see it

Franco
Guest
Franco
4 years 6 months ago

Hey it’s not Matt Morris at least.

Bill
Guest
Bill
4 years 6 months ago

It’s nice, as a Bucs fan, to know that even if a Burnett trade doesn’t work out, it will be fair trade with the risks and reward probabilities properly analysed. I can’t say I always agree with GMNH, but it’s nice to know the days of mindless Matt Morris signings are gone. Littlebrain is off buying Greek debt or bailing out Nigerian Princes or something where he can do much less harm.

game6ers
Member
game6ers
4 years 6 months ago

If the Yankees ate a good deal of his contract and didn’t want anything significant in return, I don’t see why nearly any National League team wouldn’t be at least interested. I’d certainly rather see Burnett pitching at Chavez Ravine this season that Chris Capuano or Aaron Harang.

Colin
Guest
Colin
4 years 6 months ago

Assuming that they give up a low-end prospect and take on no more than $10 million over the 2 year contract, this is a perfect deal for Pittsburgh. It mirrors the deal they gave to Kevin Correia last offseason (2 years/$10M) and helps them fill out their rotation, which they’ve been struggling to add to all winter. While getting 82 wins and contending for the playoffs is still a difficult (though not impossible) proposition this season, Burnett definitely increases those odds and acts as a great bridge to their minor league pitching talent that is still a year or two away. It’s a low risk deal, that ideally won’t hurt their farm system too much, and will almost certainly yield a positive return on their investment; it’s a pretty standard good, quality move under the Huntington administration.

Cidron
Member
Cidron
4 years 6 months ago

under less hot lights (of nyc) burnett may rediscover a bit of history (his) and pitch well. If that happens, two possibles occur.. the obvious, Pitt can reap the reward internally, from his wins etc. OR they can trade him away at this or next trade deadlines (or offseason) for something better than they gave away for his services. If he flops, the loss is what? minimal, as it isn’t really out of the question anyways.

Personally, I am not a Burnett fan, but I dont see a downside for the Pirates on this one as long as the Yankees do eat a chunk.. Large enough to not require the Pirates to give up a significant piece.

pft
Guest
pft
4 years 6 months ago

AJ might win the Cy Young in an NL Central w/o Pujols and Fielder.

AJ gets to face the pitcher every 9th batter and pitch in a low pressure environment in a better pitchers park than YS3.

Bavarian Yankee
Guest
Bavarian Yankee
4 years 6 months ago

wow, some people here are acting like AJ Burnett doesn’t know how to pitch. Let me give you some stats from his 2011 season: 3.69 xERA, 49% groundballs, 2.1 K/BB. And then find teams that WANT to trade away those pitchers. He absolutely can rebound and be a very valuable pitcher but he has to find his confidence first and of course he needs a bit more luck because that’s what he didn’t have at all over the past 2 years. Sure, his contract isn’t great but look at what guys like Harang or Capuano got on the open market.

Terry
Guest
Terry
4 years 6 months ago

Nate McLouth would make sense for the Yanks, since he’s cheap and can play LF or CF. He fills their search forthe OF depth they’ve been looking for.

bstar
Guest
bstar
4 years 6 months ago

I don’t know that Nate McLouth makes sense for any major league team right now, not with that 79 OPS+ he’s been pimpin’ the last two years.

dasox313
Member
dasox313
4 years 6 months ago

Does anyone think that the Pirates might be trying to acquire him because they are being turned down by big free agent pitchers? They might be a little desperate to try and improve the team by acquiring “big name” people to go for a push? Like at the deadline last year they only acquired Ludwick and Lee to make a push when there was better options on the trade market.

Cidron
Member
Cidron
4 years 6 months ago

not buying that reasoning. AJB hasnt been a “big name” in a while. If they wanted big name, wait til next offseason when a few bigger ones will be on the market, and Pitt will still have “we want to expand our payroll” hopefully.

INGY
Guest
INGY
4 years 6 months ago

LAUGH ALL YOU WANT BUT BURNETT BRINGS LEADERSHIP TO THE PIRATES…..ALL THESE KIDS HAVE NEVER MADE THE POSTSEASON LET ALONE WON A RING AND BURNETT BRINGS THAT EXPERIENCE WINNING A RING WITH THE MARLINS IN 2003 AND THE YANKS IN 2009…WHEN HE SPEAKS THE PIRATES BETTER LISTEN…HE IS NOT THE BEST ANYMORE BUT HE WILL FIT IN PERFECTLY WITH THE PIRATES…CHEMISTRY IS SOMETHING THAT ALL OF YOU SABER NERDS JUST DONT UNDERSTAND…..ISNT IT IRONIC THAT THE RED SOX SPENT 161 MILLION DOLLARS BUILDING A TEAM AROUND THE IDEA OF SABERMETRICS EVEN THOUGH OLD THEO AND TITO BLAMED BOSTONS HISTORICALLY EPIC COLLAPSE NOT ON STATISTICS BUT ON THE LACK OF GOOD OL TEAM CHEMISTRY???SHOW ME WHERE THE ALGORITHYM FOR THAT IS!!!!!!!

Cidron
Member
Cidron
4 years 6 months ago

nice use of caps dude..

Joel
Guest
Joel
4 years 6 months ago

Is the WAR to $$$ formula linear?

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