Two years ago, A.J. Burnett appeared washed up. Coming off a second consecutive disappointing season with the New York Yankees, the team sent him to Pittsburgh, paying more than half of his remaining salary just so they could be rid of him.
After remaking his image with the Pirates, turning into the Batman-obsessed team leader, and with two straight above-average and healthy years, Burnett has been awarded with a one year, $16 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. Not only did Burnett continue striking batters out with the Pirates, even reaching a career high with 9.83 per nine innings last season, but he pounded the zone with a strong two-seam fastball, getting ground balls 56.5% of the time, the highest in the National League among qualified starters. It's possible, especially without any draft pick compensation tied to his name, that Burnett was the best free agent pitcher on the market other than Masahiro Tanaka.
So how then did all three parties, the Pirates, Phillies, and A.J. Burnett himself, walk away with a loss?
Okay, the Phillies may not have lost as much as they didn't get much out of the signing. While their rotation will definitely be bolstered with the addition of Burnett, giving the staff more depth and pushing Roberto Hernandez to the bullpen, it's hard to see how Burnett will do much to help the Phillies' chances in 2014 or beyond.
Already overloaded with expensive veterans, the Phillies are projected to win just 76 games this next season by PECOTA. Even if we were to put on our rosiest-colored lenses and assume that Chase Utley and Ryan Howard join up for a mid-2000s reunion tour, and that Domonic Brown continues growing ever more powerful, and that A.J. Burnett pitches phenomenally, that gives the Phillies maybe ten more wins? In a division with the Braves and the Nationals, that's not going to cut it.
With a limited no trade clause, and with Burnett's provision before signing that he needs to remain close to his Maryland home, it's unlikely that there is a large list of teams that Ruben Amaro can make a deal with should the Phillies fall out of contention, limiting any future prospects that could aid the next great Phillies team, too.
Sure, Burnett's contract only cost pretend money for larger market teams, and it will help the Phillies remain more competitive next season, but in the end, it's nearly a wash.
Despite the cool $16 million that Burnett can now invest in his children's college fund, he comes out behind as well. The money's probably nice, and you could buy, like, eight hydrocars or something with it, but Burnett, in what is likely his last season, will not be playing for a contending ballclub, having to be content pitching for a what will hopefully be a competitive one.
In leaving Pittsburgh, a town where in two short years he was lionized, he not only gives up being a legend, but he leaves a ballpark and club that was suited to his style, too. Not only did PNC Park's spacious outfield and speedy outfielders keep balls in the park and doubles from dropping in, but as Burnett remolded himself as a ground ball pitcher, the Pirates started shifting constantly, helping more of those grounders find gloves.
Oh yeah, and he also leaves this killer tee-shirt behind:
(via SB Nation/MLB)
Citizen's Bank Park is a cozier field, ensuring that Burnett will give up a few more home runs. The Phillies just hired their first statistical researcher, but their below-average defensive infield probably won't be employing dozens of shifts a game to aid Burnett, either. All that leads to a higher ERA and an unhappier Burnett, one who is not flashing double peace signs on a black tee.
But there is no bigger loser than:
After their first winning season in twenty years, and after a season in which Neal Huntington and the Pittsburgh Pirates could seemingly do nothing wrong, they quickly have.
Sure, we can maybe excuse the fact that they didn't offer Burnett a qualifying offer, thereby depriving themselves of draft pick compensation, because they took Burnett at his word that he would play with the Pirates or retire. It's a little messy and you need to do some bargaining with yourself, the devil, and god, but okay, sure, it makes a little sense.
But then Neal Huntington talked about how the team couldn't afford to give Burnett market value. Which, when trying to woo prospective employees, may not be the best tactic. Even Burnett, who, at the start of the offseason seemed willing to give the Pirates some kind of discount, wouldn't so severely undervalue himself, especially after Fangraphs valued his 2013 season at $19.9 million. It would be bad for him and it would be bad for the union, players not named Dustin Pedroia rarely taking those kind of discounts.
But the Pirates didn't just lose a fan favorite player this offseason, they've left a glaring hole in their rotation with plenty of questions about how the team's finances will be used. After years of low payroll teams (albeit with plenty of draft spending), the thought was that the money would be there when the team was competitive. With somewhere between $20-$25 million coming to the team from the national TV deal, and President Frank Coonelly claiming that the Pirates television contract is more team-friendly than previously assumed, and after sold out dates and a postseason berth, the hope was that the team could spend the money to sign a pitcher like Burnett. Claiming poverty now seems a little disingenuous.
Instead of signing Burnett and his 107 ERA+ over the last two years, the Pirates paid $5 million to Edinson Volquez who hasn't had a league average ERA since 2008.
The rest of the rotation is full of question marks, too. Francisco Liriano will be looking to have his first ever back-to-back strong seasons, the 35-year-old Wandy Rodriguez is hoping to return from a forearm injury, Charlie Morton has yet to top 180 innings in a season, and Gerrit Cole, while looking like an ace at the end of the year, will be making his full season debut with the team. There are reinforcements in the minors like Jameson Taillon, but the Pirates, very much in a win-now mode, could have definitely used a steadying force like Burnett.
While it's possible that the Ryan Howard plays like it's 2008 again, turning the Phillies into this year's Cinderella team, and it's possible that A.J. Burnett grew up with a Von Hayes poster above his head, dreaming of playing for Philadelphia, and it's possible that the Pirates will run away with the NL Central title and have little use for Burnett, it's just not likely.
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