The Yankees are going to trade A.J. Burnett before the season starts. He isn’t necessary to their success moving forward and his spot in the rotation is better filled by Phil Hughes or Freddy Garcia. The Yankees can also reallocate whatever portion of Burnett’s salary gets absorbed by a trade partner to more pressing areas, such as designated hitter. While the Yankees aren’t typically cost-conscious in this fashion — we would expect them to just add salary on top of a player like Burnett — A.J. still has value and the move represents more than a straight salary dump.
While four teams are reportedly pushing for Burnett, the Pirates have emerged as the likeliest trade partner. They have some money to spend and prospects to trade and, after having their attempts rebuffed by Edwin Jackson, are itching to acquire a solid #2/#3 starter. Whether that description still fits Burnett is largely debatable, but this is a deal the Pirates should pursue.
Contextually, everything makes sense for both the Buccos and Burnett. He isn’t going to push them into contention, but he will help move the needle. Realistically, that’s all a team like the Pirates can hope for. Burnett would move to the easier league, and a much easier division overall, and can potentially re-establish his value. At 35 years old he isn’t going to sign another big contract when his current deal expires, but two solid years with the Pirates in which he serves as a mentor of sorts to the youngins could go a long way towards garnering him short-term offers when his remaining $33 million comes off the books.
The kneejerk reaction to a potential Burnett-to-the-Pirates trade is to roll our eyes and wonder why the Pirates would even bother. They won’t contend, with or without Burnett, and the money could be better spent within the system.
While investing in the system is always prudent for a perpetually rebuilding team, spending money on the major league roster isn’t the worst decision either. As long as the funds are allocated wisely, acquiring veterans can aid the rebuilding process. The Pirates also face the tough task of not even being considered by veterans. Edwin Jackson decided against their three-year offer and they aren’t even on Roy Oswalt’s radar. To net themselves a decent veteran pitcher the Pirates have to get creative.
Trading for A.J. Burnett and paying him $10-$12 million over the next two years is both creative and smart, as he has value on that type of contract. Plus, while the Yankees claim the move is more than a salary dump, and while that seems to ring some semblance of truth, they can’t expect to bring back upper echelon prospects. Under that guise, the Pirates will pay a worthwhile starting pitcher $5-$6 million per year, for the next two years, without depleting the system or hurting their rebuilding process.
Some may say pursuing Burnett shows that the Pirates front office is inept. It actually shows the exact opposite, in that the front office would accomplish one of the toughest parts of rebuilding: spending money on the right major league players. This isn’t the Royals signing Jose Guillen for three years, but because of moves like that there is an extreme aversion among fans to rebuilding teams signing veterans. But what are they supposed to do? Just give up completely and play young players before they are fully developed?
One of the major issues with the Burnett saga and this potential trade is that narratives get in the way of facts. By blindly trusting headlines, one would believe that Burnett is one of the worst pitchers in baseball. While he has struggled with the longball over the last couple of seasons — 12.9% HR/FB is the highest among AL pitchers since 2009 — his numbers are fairly decent over the last three seasons: averages of 195 IP, 7.9 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, 71.6% LOB, 45.6% GB, 4.15 SIERA. He misses bats and keeps the ball on the ground.
Move him to friendlier confines in all of stadium, division and league, and who knows, maybe his HR/FB% drops a bit and all of a sudden we’re talking about a 200 IP-3.65 ERA pitcher with the above peripherals.
The Pirates are in a position to fill their rotation with younger prospects and veterans trying to re-establish their value. That’s why this year’s rotation features a wide array of talent ranging from Charlie Morton to Erik Bedard. Adding A.J. Burnett to the mix doesn’t hurt their rebuilding process. It represents taking a low-risk flier on a talented pitcher who still has what it takes to produce 3 WAR at the major league level. Expecting his acquisition to push them over the hump is foolish, but there is tremendous incentive for the Buccos to finish at, or over, .500. Bringing Burnett in gets them closer to that area.
As long as they absorb no more than $10-$12 million of his salary, and don’t surrender noteworthy prospects, this is really a no-brainer for the Pirates.