First Pitch: A.J. Burnett and the Rising Cost of Pitchers

A.J. Burnett

What kind of money is A.J. Burnett worth this off-season? (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Earlier this week the Pittsburgh Pirates declined to give A.J. Burnett a qualifying offer of $14.1 M. The offer would have brought Burnett back if he would have accepted it, and would have brought the Pirates a draft pick if he would have signed elsewhere. There have been some predictions saying that Burnett would only cost $12-13 M.

Burnett has said he will either retire to play for the Pirates. So even without the qualifying offer, the thought would be that Burnett returning to the Pirates seems likely. The only thing you have to wonder is how the recent free agent contracts and rumors might impact the price.

The off-season has already seen Tim Lincecum sign a two-year, $35 M deal. Now, Ken Rosenthal reports that Ervin Santana is looking for five years and $100 M, while Ricky Nolasco is looking for five years and $80 M. They probably won’t get $16-20 M. MLBTR pointed out that Santana is being predicted for $15 M per year, while Nolasco is being predicted for $13 M per year. Here are the xFIP numbers for those players from the 2013 season.

A.J. Burnett: 2.92

Tim Lincecum: 3.56

Ricky Nolasco: 3.58

Ervin Santana: 3.69

The popular saying after Lincecum was signed was “If Tim Lincecum can get $17 M per year, then think about what (insert pitcher) can get”. I’m not so sure that Lincecum is going to be setting the market. If Nolasco and Santana are getting $13-15 M per year, then Lincecum’s deal will just look like a really bad contract. But what about Burnett? He had much better numbers, and that was also true last year. In the last two seasons, Burnett ranks 9th out of 74 qualified pitchers with a 3.17 xFIP. Lincecum, Nolasco, and Santana are all in the 3.68-4.05 range during that time.

Burnett has clearly been the best pitcher of the group, but he’s also several years older than the other pitchers, with worries about when his numbers might start to fade. However, on a one year deal, I think Burnett could easily get $13-15 M. In fact, if he gets that amount, and Nolasco/Santana are in that range, that would be a steal for Burnett’s services.

The Pirates didn’t offer the $14.1 M, and all of the predictions have him at $12-13 M, which would be a huge value for the quality pitcher that Burnett has been the last two seasons. They can still offer something in the $14 M range if that’s what it takes.

My feeling with Burnett is that if he does return, he will return on a one year deal. I don’t think you go from considering retirement to a multi-year deal. I also think that the Pirates could get a bit of a discount. Burnett has made over $120 M in his career. If the Pirates are offering $12-13 M, and Burnett could get $15 M from another team, I don’t think he will leave Pittsburgh for that extra $2-3 M. Burnett is one of the leaders of the team, and he’s adored by the fans. He’s also received his big payday. I don’t think he would give up his situation in Pittsburgh just to go get top dollar at this point in his career.

At the start of the off-season, the Tim Lincecum deal was alarming. All of the talk since has some more reasonable prices for pitchers. Those reasonable prices make me think that the qualifying offer would have represented the top range of what Burnett could earn next year. But for the reasons stated above, I still wouldn’t be surprised if the Pirates got him for a bit of a discount. And if Burnett continues doing what he has been doing the previous two seasons, that discount would look like a massive value in 2014.

Links and Notes

**Pre-Order the 2014 Prospect Guide

**Prospect Rewind: Looking at Tyler Glasnow’s Rapid Progression

**Winter Leagues: Matt Hague Drives In Three Runs

**AFL: Two Hits For Alex Dickerson in Loss

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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