Finding the Next A.J. Burnett

With A.J. Burnett deciding not only to return to play in 2014 but to open himself up to bids from teams other than the Pirates, the market for free agent pitchers has changed yet again. Burnett might be a bit older than guys like Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez, but he’s also not going to ask for a long term contract, so teams wanting to minimize their overall commitments can pursue Burnett as an upgrade without having to offer up a three or four year deal.

Of course, it wasn’t so long ago that there was no demand for A.J. Burnett. After a couple of miserable seasons in New York — if you judge a pitcher by ERA, anyway — the Yankees just wanted to be done with Burnett, and paid the Pirates to take him off their hands; Pittsburgh assumed just $13 million of the $33 million Burnett had remaining on his contract, and proceeded to give them two excellent years for bargain prices.

So, instead of bidding up an aging Burnett who has re-established his market value, why not look for the next A.J. Burnett, a pitcher at the low point of his value with a contract that could be assumed in lieu of signing any of the free agents on the market. Here are three options for pitchers who might have a Burnett-like career rejuvenation still left in them.

Ryan Dempster, Boston Red Sox: 1 year, $13.25 million remaining

Dempster’s first year in Boston didn’t go so well, as he posted his highest walk rate since 2007 and the highest home run rate of his entire career. That’s not a great combination, and Dempster ended up losing his spot in the Red Sox rotation after the team acquired Jake Peavy at the trade deadline. With spring training just a few weeks away, Dempster is on the outside looking in, and his main role with the Red Sox is to provide depth in case one of the starting five get hurt.

However, there are plenty of reasons to think that he can still help a team that doesn’t have Boston’s rotation depth. His stuff didn’t seem to decline at all, as his velocity held steady and batters made contact on just 77% of swings against him, right in line with his days as a quality pitcher in Chicago. If he can get the walks in line, normal regression should fix his home run problem, and the strikeout rate should allow him to return to being a quality starting pitcher.

The Red Sox might enjoy the depth he provides, but $13 million is a high price for a backup starter, and any team who would take his contract off their books would probably not have to give up much to get him. With a decent chance for a rebound and only a single year commitment, Dempster could easily be a nifty acquisition for a team who would rather not pay free agent prices.

Josh Beckett, Los Angeles Dodgers: 1 year, $15.75 million remaining

While Beckett is currently penciled in to the #5 spot in the Dodgers rotation, he certainly isn’t guaranteed a spot, as the team’s pursuit of Masahiro Tanaka showed. Even without Tanaka, there have been talks that the Dodgers could pursue a free agent starter such as Bronson Arroyo, and shedding Beckett’s contract would likely encourage them to make a run at one of the starters remaining on the market.

For a team not interested in making a two or three year commitment to a pitcher like Arroyo, however, Beckett could be an interesting one year option. He missed nearly all of the 2013 season with a groin injury, but the good news is that his arm seemed to be in decent shape when he was on the mound. His velocity bumped back up from his final year in Boston, and hitters only made contact on 76% of their swings against him last year, rivaling the numbers he put up back in his glory days in Miami. While it seems like Beckett has been around forever, he’ll only be 34 next year, and his peripheral numbers don’t support the idea that he’s lost his ability to pitch at the big league level.

He might not be an ace anymore, but if he can stay healthy enough to throw 160 to 180 innings, Beckett could easily be an above average starting pitcher. If a team can get the Dodgers to kick in some cash to help facilitate Beckett’s exit, landing him on a one year deal could be a nice little upgrade for a team looking for a rotation boost.

John Danks, Chicago White Sox: 2 years, $28.5 million remaining

The Pale Hose are a team in transition, and GM Rick Hahn made several good moves this winter to help setup their franchise for future success, but they’re unlikely to be contenders in 2014 and maybe not in 2015 either. While Danks is still young enough — he’s just going to be 29 this year — to figure into the White Sox long term plans, he’s more valuable to a contender for the next few years, and the White Sox probably wouldn’t mind getting a chance to reallocate some of his money to fill out the rest of their roster with lower cost players.

While Danks didn’t show the same stuff or strikeout ability as he did before shoulder surgery sidelined him in 2012, he did post the lowest walk rate of his career, seemingly acknowledging that he’d have to find new ways to succeed with a reduced repertoire. Danks is still young enough to reinvent himself as a command oriented innings eater, and while $28 million for a back-end starter is no bargain, a team that could convince the White Sox to eat some of that money in order to facilitate a trade could end up with a better option than paying any of the remaining free agent starters who would take a two year deal.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.
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Great article. When is the 2014 fangraphs + expected to