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.