Over the last few years, the Pirates have developed a bit of a reputation for being exceptional at extracting value from discarded pitchers: Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, and Mark Melancon are three of the more recent examples, for instance. However, before any of those three got to Pittsburgh, the Pirates worked their voodoo on A.J. Burnett, taking him off the Yankees hands in the winter of 2011 and extracting two excellent years from him after New York decided to pay him to play for anyone else but them.
Over the 2012-2013 seasons, Burnett threw 393 innings with a 92 ERA-/85 FIP-/82 xFIP-, providing well above average performance and durability, and because the Yankees were financing his costs, the Pirates paid just $13 million for those two seasons. However, the cost-conscious organization declined to make him a qualifying offer last offseason, and despite some mutual desire for another contract between both sides, Burnett ended up taking a two year contract to go pitch for the Phillies.
It didn’t go well for either side. Burnett was bad, his teammates were worse, and so both sides decided to opt-out of the second year of the contract, allowing Burnett to become a free agent again. And now, with the choice of where to pitch once again, Burnett has decided to go back to Pittsburgh, signing on for the 2015 season for $8.5 million. By opting out of his Phillies deal and signing with the Pirates, he ended up leaving $4 million on the table, so this represents a pretty significant pay cut for Burnett, but as a 38 year old who has made over $100 million in his career, happiness clearly came ahead of maximizing dollars earned.
And Burnett should be pretty happy to be back in Pittsburgh, as his success there was likely no mirage. For one, the Pirates have been employed aggressive defensive positioning to try and limit their allowed rates of hits on balls in play, and have combined that with an emphasis on catchers who specialize in expanding the strike zone. Toss in a pitcher friendly ballpark and Pittsburgh is one of the best places for any pitcher in all of baseball. Burnett has chosen a pretty good place to have an affinity towards.
Of course, pitching in Pittsburgh won’t magically turn Burnett back into the guy he was a few years ago. He’s older now, and in baseball, older usually means worse. Steamer projects him for +1.8 WAR in 2014, but Burnett is a guy who has consistently underperformed his FIP, so a runs allowed forecast would put him closer to +1.5 WAR. And sure enough, that’s what Dan Szymborski projected him for when he tweeted out an early ZIPS forecast for Burnett after the news broke. A +1.5 WAR starter is certainly useful, but would make Burnett about half as valuable as he was during his prior stint in Pittsburgh.
They’re getting the same name, but probably not the same performance, and because the Yankees aren’t footing most of the bill this time around, he’s actually going to cost them even more. But there’s nothing wrong with paying more than a hilarious bargain, as long as you’re still paying less than market value, and $8.5 million for roughly a +1.5 WAR pitcher comes out to about $5.7 million per win, a bit less than last year’s average price, and almost certainly less than what the cost will be this year. Worse pitchers are likely going to get more money and more years than Burnett just did; this is the kind of deal you can sign when a player directs his agent to only negotiate with one team.
So this seems like a win for both sides. Burnett gets to pitch where he wants, while the Pirates get a useful back-end starter for a little less than it would have cost them to bid against other teams for something similar. Given his age and declining skills, Burnett has little upside remaining, but a reunion with the Pirates pitcher-friendly environs should allow him to throw a 180 decent innings. And thanks to his sinker/slider repertoire, even in the worst case scenario, he’d probably make a very effective right-handed bullpen piece, so there’s little downside at all to this kind of signing.
The team can’t afford to see him as the guy who pitched like their ace a few years ago, but this contract doesn’t ask him to do that, and I’m sure the Pirates are wise enough to realize he’s more of a #5 starter than a #1 starter at this point. As a depth piece, Burnett can help the Pirates, and the contract makes plenty of sense for both sides. But if they don’t re-sign Francisco Liriano, Burnett’s not the guy to take his place, and this shouldn’t be the last pitching upgrade they make this winter.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.