With the Pittsburgh Pirates currently in a playoff race, the upcoming off-season moves take a back seat as far as priority goes. That said, the Pirates will have some interesting decisions to make this off-season. One decision is whether to keep starting pitcher A.J. Burnett.
That decision won’t be completely up to the Pirates. Over the weekend it was reported that Burnett is 50/50 on retiring after the season. If he does return, he would be open to returning to the Pirates. And if he is open to returning, the Pirates will want him back.
“We’re going to do everything within our power to keep A.J. here,” Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington said on Sunday. “Our goal is to have A.J. be a Pittsburgh Pirate next year absolutely.”
It’s hard to peg what Burnett’s value would be on the open market. There haven’t been many pitchers his age who have gone the free agent route. Ryan Dempster was a free agent last off-season and received a two-year, $26.5 M deal. Hiroki Kuroda keeps signing one year deals with the Yankees, with the latest being $15 M. Burnett has already received his big payday, and might only want a one year deal. That said, he has pitched well, and I could see him commanding $13-15 M on the open market. That would be the same price range as a qualifying offer for draft pick compensation. If the Pirates went that route, they’d either get Burnett for around $14 M, or would get a draft pick if he signed elsewhere.
Money will be the key factor, as it is with any small market team, even teams that are expanding payroll.
“We’ve got X number of dollars to spend,” Huntington said. “We’ve got some guys internally who are going to continue to make more money through arbitration. We’d love them all to return. But that’s not going to be financially possible. And that’s the reality of the market. Not just the reality of Pittsburgh but of all small markets, and some large markets. We’re going to have to make some tough choices … If you think getting here was tough, staying here is going to be that much more difficult.”
Here are the players who are eligible for arbitration after the 2013 season:
Pedro Alvarez – Can void his 2014 option and become arbitration eligible.
Neil Walker – Will get a raise over his $3.3 M this year.
Charlie Morton – It will be interesting to see what kind of salary he gets, since last year was a settlement following Tommy John surgery, and he’s healthy this off-season.
Garrett Jones – He could be a non-tender candidate with his performance this year, and the fact that he will likely see a raise over his $4.5 M since arbitration looks at the full body of work.
Travis Snider – A first year arbitration eligible player who might be a non-tender candidate.
Gaby Sanchez – Another non-tender candidate, although he has actually done his job this year in the first base platoon. Still, he’d get a raise over his $1.75 M salary, and there’s only so much you can pay a right-handed hitting first baseman, especially if you find an everyday guy.
Mark Melancon – He will be first year arbitration eligible.
Vin Mazzaro – The Pirates don’t usually tender arbitration to relievers like Mazzaro.
Felix Pie – He will probably be non-tendered.
There are also raises to consider. The following players have existing contracts and will see a raise in 2014:
Jose Tabata – He will receive $3 M, which is a $2 M raise.
Andrew McCutchen – $7.25 M, up from $4.5 M
Russell Martin – $8.5 M, up from $6.5 M
Jason Grilli – $4 M, up from $2.25 M
Francisco Liriano – $6 M, up from $3.125 M
There’s also the Wandy Rodriguez player option to consider. Rodriguez will most likely exercise his 2014 option for $13 M, and the Pirates would be responsible for $7.5 M of that, with $5.5 M coming over from the Astros.
All of that said, the Pirates should have plenty of money to bring back Burnett, and still have money left for off-season moves. My “way too early” projection of the 2014 payroll has the Pirates at $60 M with all of the above moves (including non-tenders to Jones, Sanchez. Snider, Mazzaro, and Pie), not counting Burnett. The addition of Burnett would take the projected payroll to anywhere between $73-75 M.
The Pirates are currently projected to spend $74,460,458 in 2013. Teams will also receive a big boost next year with the National TV revenue coming in. That could add $20 M+ to each team’s budget. So the Pirates could spend up to the 2013 totals, and still theoretically have a lot of room left over for additions to the team beyond Burnett. This doesn’t include any boost in revenues they receive from the playoffs this year.
So the Pirates definitely can afford Burnett. They want him back. Burnett seems like he wants to return to Pittsburgh if he does return to baseball. As I wrote the other day, Burnett would provide a big boost to the rotation in 2014. He would join Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and either a healthy Wandy Rodriguez or Jeff Locke. That’s largely the same rotation that has had so much success this year, and it would be hard to imagine where that rotation would be without Burnett’s numbers.