First Pitch: Recapping Actual A.J. Burnett News

A.J. Burnett pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates

A.J. Burnett will return in 2014, but he might not return to the Pirates. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

After months of no real updates on the A.J. Burnett saga, and nothing but repeats of the same old news, we finally got an update today. Travis Sawchik reported that Burnett planned to pitch in 2014, and that he would be open to returning to a team other than the Pirates.

I had a bunch of thoughts on the entire Burnett saga, and decided to list them in no specific order. I then went on to sum everything else up at the end. I’ve said most of this stuff before, so you’ve probably heard a lot of it. Well, except for this first part, which is new today.

**First, it’s still possible that the Pirates could re-sign Burnett. I personally don’t think it’s likely. Then again I don’t know any details of the negotiations, what Burnett is asking for, what the Pirates are offering, and what other teams are interested and offering. So basically, I’m like everyone else with an opinion.

**All off-season, the focus has been on the qualifying offer. I said I would have given Burnett the offer. It’s the safe move to make, the Pirates had payroll room, and they could have added another pitcher. That said, the qualifying offer really only matters at this point if you believe one of two things:

1. That the only reason Burnett hasn’t signed yet, and has been so quiet until late January, has been because the Pirates didn’t offer him $14.1 M. Basically, you think that Burnett would have just accepted the offer back in November, rather than going through three months of silence.


2. You believe Burnett would have still been silent until now, but the Pirates would get a draft pick as compensation if he signs elsewhere. I think that’s ignoring the reality of the current market. Kendrys Morales. Ervin Santana. Stephen Drew. Ubaldo Jimenez. Nelson Cruz. These are all guys who are seeking multi-year deals. They’re all guys who have draft pick compensation attached. And none of them are signed in late January. Teams aren’t giving up a draft pick right now for multiple years of Santana or Jimenez, but they’d give up a pick for one year of Burnett? I think if Burnett would have declined the qualifying offer, he would have killed his market with other teams. Then the Pirates would have been in a great position to get him at a below market rate.

**The Pirates did say they wouldn’t be able to give Burnett $14.1 M, citing a big percentage of their payroll. That has been criticized. My question is: why is that considered a bad thing? All around the league, teams get hometown discounts from players. It happened this year with Mike Napoli taking less money to return to Boston. Josh Johnson took less money to go to San Diego. Those teams don’t get those deals by originally offering market value, then having the player say “Oh no, I was going to take less than that because I want to play here”.

**Burnett would definitely improve the Pirates. The way I see it, they’ve signed Edinson Volquez to take Burnett’s spot. The team has said they would still have room for Burnett, but who are they dropping from the rotation? Not Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, or Charlie Morton. They didn’t sign Volquez for $5 M to be a reliever and a sixth starter. And Wandy Rodriguez would be the other option, but the team thinks he’s coming back, and I don’t see them paying him $7.5 M to be a reliever.

So you’ve got Burnett or Volquez. When I did the ZiPS analysis a few weeks ago, I projected 88 wins for the Pirates. Volquez was projected for an 0.2 WAR, while Burnett had a 2.2 WAR in 173.7 innings. So on paper, Burnett adds two wins. I do think the projection for Volquez is low. He was horrible last year, and still had an 0.4 WAR. I think he could repeat his 2012 season under Searage and get a 1.1 WAR. If that was the case, Burnett adds an extra win in this projection. But then you also have the possibility that Burnett’s projection could be low, since he averaged a 3.5 WAR the last two years. Either way, I think you’re talking about a two win difference.

**While Burnett would upgrade the Pirates, I don’t think the Pirates need an upgrade. Burnett is a luxury. Last year when I did the ZiPS projections, I came up with 83 wins. The Pirates obviously exceeded that, and they did so with players like Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and the entire pitching staff as a whole exceeding projections. You can’t count on players exceeding projections, but I think you can make a case that McCutchen, Marte, and the pitching staff are better than their ZiPS WAR projections, meaning that there’s a good chance the team could exceed that 88 win projection. I think the team is a contender without Burnett, and I don’t take the view of “two wins could be the difference between the playoffs and not making the playoffs”. Last year the Pirates had a four game difference between home field in the Wild Card and going to Cincinnati. They could have won 88 games and still would have made the playoffs by two games. The idea that Burnett’s projected to wins would make a crucial difference for the Pirates is basically taking an event that has a small probability, and acting like it’s a certainty.

**I’ve been saying that I don’t think Volquez will be the next Burnett/Liriano. I don’t see him becoming an ace like we saw with those two. Then again, no one really saw that coming with those two. Here are some numbers of all three players in the two years leading up to joining the Pirates:

Player A: 5.20 ERA in 377 IP, 7.6 K/8, 3.8 BB/9, xFIP by year: 4.49/3.86

Player B: 5.23 ERA in 291 IP, 8.6 K/9, 5.0 BB/9, xFIP by year: 4.52/4.14

Player C: 4.90 ERA in 353 IP, 8.1 K/9, 4.6 BB/9, xFIP by year: 4.20/4.07

Which guy would you pick? If you go by xFIP in the most recent year, it would probably be A. If you go by consistency of xFIP, it would be C. If you go by actual results, it would be C. If you’re scared by the control numbers, it would be A. And pretty much no one would take B, since that player had injury problems, the worst control, and the worst xFIP by year.

A is Burnett. B is Liriano. C is Volquez. Right now, Volquez doesn’t look like he will be an ace. He doesn’t look like he could be better than a guy who can post league average numbers at around 180 innings per year. But coming into the system, he looks about the same as Burnett and Liriano did. Neither of those guys screamed “ace”. Even when I was reporting how good Liriano looked in his rehab appearances last year, there were people who downplayed him, saying the Pirates shouldn’t expect big things out of him.

People are down on Volquez because of those bad numbers — the same bad numbers that Liriano and Burnett had before joining the Pirates. I’ve said that I don’t have a lot of confidence that Volquez will be as successful as Burnett or Liriano. I’ve also pointed out that I don’t have the resources the Pirates have. I don’t have the stats department or the pro scouts who found all three players. I don’t know the plan from Ray Searage and company for Volquez. I don’t know how much Volquez will benefit from the Pirates’ defense, from the shifts, from Russell Martin’s pitch framing, and everything else that Burnett and Liriano benefitted from. So I’m not going to rule out that Volquez can be better than a league average pitcher who puts up a lot of innings, and I won’t rule out that he could be this year’s breakout pitcher.

The Summary

Here is where we are with Burnett: the same place we’ve always been — he may or may not come back to the Pirates. Before it was “Pirates or retire”, and now we know that Burnett isn’t retiring and would consider teams other than the Pirates. The Pirates can still sign him. If they want, they can spend the $14.1 M. That would make more sense now than it did a few months ago, since they don’t need to make room in the budget for someone like James Loney. Burnett would be an upgrade on paper over Edinson Volquez.

The question is, do the Pirates need Burnett? I’d say that depends on how you view the Pirates and whether you think they are contenders, but that’s wrong. If you think that Burnett is the difference between the Pirates being a good team and a bad team, then you don’t understand individual player values. Really, this all depends on how much you trust Ray Searage and the process that led to Burnett and Liriano. No one thinks Volquez has much of a chance of being an ace, but no one thought that about the previous two pitchers. As you can see by the numbers above, a lot of the disgust with Volquez (his horrible numbers) were the same, or worse, for Burnett and Liriano.

If Burnett signs elsewhere, it’s not going to break the Pirates. They’re contenders without him. The team is almost exactly the same team as last year, and I think it’s better. Burnett is gone, but they have an extra half season from Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and an extra month from Francisco Liriano. They won’t have one month of Marlon Byrd at the end of the year, but they’ll get Gregory Polanco for 2-3 months. The mid-season boost from Gerrit Cole will come from Jameson Taillon this year. Jordy Mercer will be in the majors from day one providing above-average offense at shortstop. Andrew Lambo probably won’t be worse than Garrett Jones or Justin Morneau were in 2013. And most of the rest of the team is young, so you shouldn’t expect any massive declines in performance, and could see some improvements.

My stance on this whole situation is the same as it has always been. If I had the choice, I’d take Burnett for $14.1 M over Volquez for $5 M. I’d take that because it’s the safe move. It’s the move that looks right on the surface, to anyone looking in from the outside who isn’t qualified to run a baseball team, which is pretty much everyone giving reactions. But I’m also willing to admit that I don’t have all of the information here. I don’t have the resources the Pirates have that led to them signing Volquez. Considering Volquez looks just as bad as Burnett and Liriano did, and considering the Pirates turned those two around in a huge way, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt here.



Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is now available. You can purchase your copy here, and read about every prospect in the Pirates’ system. The book includes our top 50 prospects, as well as future potential ratings for every player.

**We have been releasing our top 20 prospects for the 2014 season, and this week we conclude the countdown with the top five. Today the countdown resumed with #4 – Austin Meadows.

**A.J. Burnett Will Pitch In 2014

**Pirates Rank Third in Keith Law’s Farm System Ratings

**Winter Leagues: Polanco and Escogido on Verge of Elimination

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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