A.J. Burnett has decided he'd like to pitch in 2014, after all.
Maybe he saw the four-year, $50 million Matt Garza received from the Brewers and thought he'd like some of that. Perhaps Burnett and his agent saw a free agent market for starting pitchers that currently has no clear top choice and figured he'd get a nice contract out of that. It's possible that the 37-year-old right-hander really was contemplating retirement and needed about three months to think about it. Burnett may also have not wanted to play the free agent game throughout the winter, preferring limit his offseason to a few weeks before spring training began.
Regardless of the reason, Burnett is now on the market. And after taking the offseason to think about it, he is also now apparently willing to pitch for a team other than the Pirates. Previously, Burnett had framed his free agency as an either-or scenario. Either he'd return to Pittsburgh, where he's had two successful seasons, or he'd retire. As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Travis Sawchik reports, that's no longer the case. Unless the Pirates are willing to pay market value for Burnett, it seems likely he'll pitch for another team.
Pittsburgh opted not to extend a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer to Burnett after last season. The unspoken reasoning behind that choice is that the Pirates didn't want to pay Burnett that much. Though he was paid $16.5 million on the final year of his contract, $8 million of that was paid by the Yankees, Burnett's previous club. Not giving Burnett a qualifying offer could not only cost the Pirates one of their best starting pitchers, but it also means Pittsburgh won't receive a first-round draft pick if Burnett signs elsewhere.
According to USA Today's John Perrotto, the Pirates offered Burnett $8.5 million for 2014. If that's the case, it's not difficult to see why Burnett is willing to go on the open market, rather than return to Pittsburgh. Garza's getting an average annual salary of $12.5 million in his new deal, and even that figure is obviously less than what Burnett would've received with a qualifying offer. Not to mention that a $14.1 million salary would be a pay cut. Sure, Burnett is seven years older than Garza, but likely isn't seeking a four-year deal if he was contemplating retirement months ago.
Have the Pirates already decided to move on from Burnett? As WHYGAVS' Pat Lackey points out, Pittsburgh would be a better team this season with Burnett in its rotation. Last year, he compiled a 3.30 ERA with 209 strikeouts in 191 innings. Burnett ranked ninth among NL starting pitchers with a 4.0 WAR, while his 2.80 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and 2.92 xFIP show that he pitched even better than his ERA indicates.
Would the Pirates rather have that or Edinson Volquez, who went a combined 9-12 with a 5.71 ERA, 4.24 FIP and 0.4 WAR with the Padres and Dodgers last year? If it's all about finances, Volquez apparently fits into Pittsburgh's plan better, signing a one-year, $5 million contract in mid-December.
The Pirates seem to feel their starting rotation is all set, with Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Wandy Rodriguez and Charlie Morton taking up the other four spots on the staff. Each of those starters fit within the $8 million range the team apparently has earmarked for that position. Rodriguez is set to make $13 million this year, but $5.5 million of that will be paid by the Astros.
All signs thus seem to point to Burnett signing with another team. Based on initial reports, the early favorites appear to be the Orioles and Phillies.
Burnett makes his offseason home in Maryland, which is one reason Baltimore seems like a natural fit for him. But it wouldn't just be a matter of geographical convenience. Burnett would fill an opening in the Orioles' rotation, perhaps in the No. 2 or No. 3 spot behind Chris Tillman and Wei-Yin Chen. He wouldn't cost Baltimore a first-round pick like Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, and would almost certainly come cheaper, especially on a long-term basis. Adding Burnett would also allow Kevin Gausman to further develop in the minors or at the back of the rotation.
Perhaps there's some concern over Burnett returning to the AL East, where he struggled while pitching for the Yankees. Camden Yards is also a hitter-friendly ballpark. But Burnett pitched well against AL East competition during his three seasons with the Blue Jays, and his first year with the Yankees was relatively successful as well. Getting out of New York and its crushing media grinder seemed to be a benefit.
The Phillies' offseason would certainly look better by signing Burnett. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has been ridiculed for signing aging players like Marlon Byrd and Carlos Ruiz, while filling out the last two spots in his starting rotation with projects like Cuban import Miguel Gonzalez and Roberto Hernandez. Jonathan Pettibone will probably be in the mix as well. But with Burnett, the Phillies would have a strong top three along with Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. He would be an excellent replacement for the retired Roy Halladay. Pushing Kyle Kendrick down to the fourth slot makes the rotation deeper and allows the team more time to develop a fifth starter.
However, Burnett doesn't have to restrict his job search to the Northeast. He would be an excellent fit for the Rangers, who need some reliability to go with Yu Darvish and Martin Perez in their rotation. Burnett slots in nicely behind Darvish in the Texas starting five, and with a strong top three, Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando and Colby Lewis can work themselves back at a slower pace, if necessary. This also gives the Rangers enough depth that they wouldn't be tempted to rush Derek Holland back from injury.
Other clubs that could conceivably find a spot for Burnett include the Nationals, Indians, Reds, Royals, Diamondbacks and Mets. Let's add the Dodgers and Angels to that list too, since those clubs are perpetually on the lookout for starting pitching. How about the Braves, who might not want to meet Burnett's price, but could consider Burnett as a veteran replacement for Tim Hudson? That's basically one-third of the teams in MLB that could use Burnett, depending on where he's willing to go and whose willing to pay his market value.
Is it any wonder that Burnett is willing to "open himself up to the market," as a source told Sawchik? It's the smartest move the pitcher could make. Perhaps Burnett was swayed by sentiment when he said that he'd re-sign with the Pirates or retire. It was a great two-year run for him in Pittsburgh with an up-and-coming contender. Perhaps the Pirates shouldn't be criticized for taking Burnett at his word. But if the front office presumed that he might be willing to take a discount to stick with its upstart club, that appears to have been a serious misjudgment.
Besides, when does the player not go for the most money?