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A.J. Burnett Shanghaied By The Pirates

We all know the old saying: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, I’m never drafting that player again. It’s one thing to be disappointed with a player’s performance in a single year, but if a player doesn’t pan out in multiple seasons after having been a previously valuable player, well, it’s hard not to take personally sometimes.

It’s been a few years since A.J. Burnett was a sought after fantasy property — his last truly strong season was 2007, which means the 2008 draft was his last time as a potential top tier pitcher — but was still getting drafted in the 200-215 range on most servers last year. Prior to his move to Pittsburgh, Burnett was getting drafted…sometimes. His ADP isn’t that different from 2011, about 222 according to Mock Draft Central, but he’s being drafted in fewer than 10 percent of mixed 5X5 drafts.

So, the question is: Does A.J.’s move to the NL Central make him a more draftable property? Last week, Chris Cwik made a compelling case that Burnett was worth gambling on, and a move to the National League should only serve to make him more valuable. Yes, Burnett is very clearly not the pitcher he was when he was with the Marlins or even when he was with the Blue Jays, but he’s also not as valueless as some of the reports out of New York last season would have you believe.

The biggest benefit Burnett will see is in getting to face pitchers instead of DHs, which will help drop his ERA as well as raise his strikeout rate. The quick and dirty league adjustment is about half a run for — as of 2008, the actual value was an estimated .41 runs according to The Hardball Times. If 2011, as bad as the year was for Burnett, is representative of where his talent is at now, his ERA in 2012 would be around 4.70. ZiPS projected him for a 5.31 ERA, which adjusts down to 4.90. That’s still not great, but it’s far more workable than anything over the 5.00 line, and my hunch is that getting him out of the AL East will bring a far bigger drop than the general league adjustment.

Were he going from AL Central to NL Central, then yes, a half run would feel about right, but he’s moving into a division where there were two teams that scored fewer runs than the worst AL East team last year. If Burnett can post an ERA close to the average of his last six years, 4.39, then his adjusted ERA would be around 3.90. Throw in the fact that Burnett is moving from a solid hitter’s park in NuYankee to PNC, which plays close to even but tilts a little to the pitcher-friendly side, and there’s even more of a reason for tempered optimism.

The second major benefit Burnett will see is a rise in his strikeout rate. Pitchers just aren’t the best hitters, yes that includes Carlos Zambrano, but I’ve yet to encounter a fantasy league that only counts the strikeouts of opposing position players. Even amidst his disastrous second half, Burnett was still racking up a solid number of strikeouts, 8.2 K/9 for the season and 9.3 K/9 in the second half specifically, which made him an oddly compelling option even as he was single-handedly killing teams’ ERA and WHIP. 8.2 K/9 also matches his career rate, which means projecting him for an adjusted 8.7 K/9 isn’t outlandish; 8.7 K/9 would put Burnett into the top 20 K/9 men in baseball and present a Brandon Morrow-like problem: How many strikeouts are enough to counterbalance a detrimental ERA and/or WHIP?

It is a virtual certainty that Burnett will be better in 2012 than he was in 2011, even more so now that he’s moved into the NL, but there is an X-factor remaining in how much better he’ll be. It takes about 10 seconds of cursory searching to find news articles and blogs trumpeting Burnett’s departure from the Bronx. Somewhere along the line, he ran afoul of the Yankee faithful and by the end of the 2011 season, he was bearing the blame for just about anything and everything that went wrong with the pitching staff. He was wretched in the second half, yes,  but the abuse he took had clearly been building for a long time prior to this season. I don’t know to what extent Burnett felt that pressure or internalized that hate, but it would take remarkable, Shaolin monk-like resolve to block all of it out. Will being out of the New York atmosphere help Burnett pitch better? There’s no way to know until he goes out and does it, but I can’t imagine that the move would harm his production. At worst, it won’t make a difference either way.

Like Cwik mentioned at the end of his piece, whatever optimism was contained in the above paragraphs doesn’t mean that I think Burnett is going to be cured of all his ills and will challenge Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, and Tim Lincecum for a Cy Young Award, but I do think he’s worth a sniff on draft day. In NL-only, I definitely like him as a last or second to last pitcher taken to round out a staff, and even in deep mixed I like him as a potential sleeper. There’s a lot of good pitching out there, but Burnett will give owners a consistently above-average strikeout rate, and that’s not something that’s often plentiful in the waning rounds. Those strikeouts may come at a cost, but any damage to ERA or WHIP can be mitigated by the rest of a solid staff.