Huntington Says Pirates Can’t Afford Burnett at $14 M

David Todd of ESPN 970 had Neal Huntington on his show this afternoon, discussing why the Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t tender A.J. Burnett a qualifying offer. The podcast might eventually go up on David’s page, but for now here is his summary of the Burnett conversation.

Neal Huntington said that the Pirates couldn't afford $14 M for Burnett. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Neal Huntington said that the Pirates couldn’t afford $14 M for Burnett. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

There are a lot of things to unpack from this. First, if the Pirates feel that they can’t spend $14 M on one player, then that’s going to create problems for them in the future. Taking that literally, that means they can only afford Andrew McCutchen for the next two seasons before he starts making $13-14 M per year. I’m not going to take this literally though, since I think this is more about Burnett.

Burnett has been a fantastic pitcher the last two years. I pointed out last night that guys like Ervin Santana and Ricky Nolasco are projected to receive $13-15 M, while they are asking for $16-20 M. If Burnett were to receive $14 M through the qualifying offer, then he would come at a huge value, since he has been much better the last two years than Santana and Nolasco.

David sums up the chat by saying he feels that the Pirates will look for a bargain like Liriano, and will look to move a reliever. The bargain approach is something they’ve done the last two years. It got Liriano last year, and it got Burnett the previous season. If the Pirates really believe in their abilities to find a bargain, and don’t feel it is a fluke, then you could see how $14 M might be too much for Burnett. It’s not about what Burnett is worth. It’s about opportunity cost. If they can get another bounce back pitcher for $8-10 M a year, and they believe they’ll have the same success as Liriano and Burnett, then it wouldn’t make sense to pay any pitcher $14 M.

Charlie brought up a good point that it’s still early in the off-season, and we shouldn’t take Huntington’s words at face value. Last year the Pirates non-tendered Jeff Karstens, and people threw a fit over the decision. They traded Joel Hanrahan, which was described as a salary dump. The additions of Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano ended up being two of the best free agent moves from last off-season, but at the time the idea of trading Hanrahan to sign Liriano wasn’t widely accepted as a good pair of moves.

The Pirates have a starting payroll of around $63 M this off-season. They spent around $75 M last year, and MLB teams will be getting an extra $20 M this year from National TV revenues. The Pirates also received more money due to an increase in attendance and their playoff ticket sales. They definitely should be able to afford Burnett in a vacuum. But if they’ve got money earmarked for other positions (first base, right field, a buy-low starter), then it’s possible that they don’t have $14 M for Burnett.

I’m not saying their approach with Burnett is the right approach. I think it’s too early to take any stance on that right now. I also think it’s possible that Burnett could return at a hometown discount. As I’ve been saying, I don’t think he’ll go from considering retirement to a multi-year deal. I also think that he’s made enough in his career that he would be fine accepting less on a one-year deal, considering his relationship with the team and the fans in Pittsburgh.

What this does tell us is that this will be a very interesting off-season. The easy move for the Pirates would be to give Burnett a qualifying offer and pay him $14 M if he accepts. They wouldn’t get complaints from the fans, and the move would be widely praised. We saw last year that they weren’t afraid to make an unpopular move (Hanrahan trade) to get guys who they believed could be better options. That worked last year. David Todd feels that they’re going to try again this year. If Burnett doesn’t return, it will be interesting to see the direction they go with that money.

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, 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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