First Pitch: A.J. Burnett Would Not Upgrade the Pirates Rotation

Here are the numbers for two pitchers. One of these pitchers is seen as a potential mid-season upgrade for the Pirates, and a guy who could help them for a playoff run. The other pitcher is a guy who is currently in the Pirates’ rotation, and who a lot of fans would have as the top candidate to be moved to the bullpen or traded away.

Player A: 3.92 ERA / 4.04 xFIP

Player B: 4.07 ERA / 4.23 xFIP

You can tell by the title that one of these is going to be A.J. Burnett. He’s actually Player A. The other player? Edinson Volquez. And the difference between the two? If Volquez had two fewer earned runs, he’d have a better ERA this season than Burnett. The advanced metrics show that the two aren’t far off with their performances this year.

There has been some talk about the Pirates possibly being interested in bringing back Burnett in a trade. Considering his performance this year, that’s a move that wouldn’t make sense.

Here are some other numbers. These are the Pirates’ starters, ranked by xFIP, with Burnett included (updated with Vance Worley’s start tonight).

1. Francisco Liriano – 3.49

2. Jeff Locke – 3.55

3. Gerrit Cole – 3.60

4. Charlie Morton – 3.78

5. Vance Worley – 3.89

6. Brandon Cumpton – 3.93

7. A.J. Burnett – 4.07

8. Edinson Volquez – 4.23

At the moment, Burnett would be the seventh best option for the Pirates. There are some disclaimers here. We’re dealing with a small sample size for Worley, and we don’t really know what he can do over the long-run. So far he has looked good, but it has only been four starts. Locke is also dealing with a small sample size, although bigger than Worley, and his stuff backs up the stats. Also, Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano haven’t been putting up results as good as their advanced metrics. But realistically, Burnett isn’t replacing those guys.

It makes sense why Burnett would be appealing. He has been a good pitcher in his career. He posted great numbers with the Pirates. But that’s what he did in the past. It’s not what he could do for the Pirates now. Right now, Burnett is no better than the fifth or sixth best options in Pittsburgh. Add to that the fact that he’s owed about $8 M the rest of the year, and will be owed at least $7.5 M next year, and it sounds like an expensive way to get slightly better production than what Volquez is putting up. I haven’t even considered what he could cost in prospects.

I believe that the reason Burnett is struggling this year is due to a hernia injury. That’s a valid reason for his issues. The problem is that he doesn’t plan to have surgery until the off-season. Right now his strikeout rate is way down, his walks are up, and his ground ball rate is down. He’s not the pitcher he was the last two seasons. And if it’s because of that injury, then you shouldn’t expect him to return to being that pitcher.

Burnett is a 37-year-old pitcher who is currently hurt, has poor numbers, will probably need surgery in the off-season, and hasn’t been much better than the current internal options. He’s owed at least $15.5 M, and would also come with a cost in prospects.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Pirates to consider a rotation upgrade. But right now, Burnett is not an upgrade. The A.J. Burnett that was in Pittsburgh the last two years would have been an upgrade to this current staff. Unfortunately, that A.J. Burnett isn’t around this year.

Links and Notes

**Austin Meadows Has His Rehab Transferred to Bristol

**Prospect Watch: Allie Homers, Lambo Returns, Huge Game Off the Bench From Rojas

**Barrett Barnes Progressing Nicely, Andrew Lambo Returns to Action

**Minor League Schedule: Brandon Cumpton Starts For Indianapolis Tonight

International Signings

**2014 Pittsburgh Pirates International Signing Tracker

**Pittsburgh Pirates Sign Pitcher Roger Santana

**Pittsburgh Pirates Sign Pitcher Adonis Pichardo

**Pittsburgh Pirates Sign Eighth International Prospect

Tim Williams

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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  • Andrew

    In May I figured that we would need to get a FA pitcher in 2015. But now, if 2 out of the 3 of Worley, Locke, and Cumpton could start, along with Kingham, and Tallion later in the year, that seems less necessary. So Martin seems like the most important FA signing for 2015. The team was bad when he was out early in the year.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: Agree 100%. The Phillies were the team willing to pay the price in 2014 and that is very understandable when you have Ryan Howard at 34, Carlos Ruiz at 34, Jimmy Rollins at 35, and Chase Utley also at 35. The Pirates just have way too many much younger, much cheaper, and better SP possibilities within the system without even thinking about the kind of prospects they would like to have. Nope, let the Phillies keep him. The Pirates needed a house-cleaning of aging SP’s (Burnett, Rodriguez, Liriano), and that process is almost complete – no reason to go backwards.

  • Scott Kliesen

    If you think Burnett is ever pitching for Pirates again, you can STFD!

  • Lee Young

    Tim….I’ve read where AJ is suffering from a sports hernia, not a hamstring.

    I’ve often wondered what the diff btwn a sports hernia and a ‘regular’ hernia?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

      That’s correct. If you cover the Pirates minor league system this year, you get used to typing “hamstring injury”.

      • mysonisnamedafterRoberto

        Nice…… :)

  • R Edwards

    Although giving Burnett the QO was still the right thing to do and he would have been an improvement over guys like Wandy and Liriano, I agree that at this time he would only marginally (if that) improve the rotation. In fact, one could argue that the rotation is now NOT the area of concern with this team.

    The bullpen is spotty at times – and I think guys like Frieri and Gomez will continue to hurt the team if they are put in close games. Oliver or Mazzaro would be an upgrade over either one.

    Offensively, even with Polanco, this team does not score enough runs most nights. First base is hurting the team big time – we don’t get much more than walks and singles from that platoon. Maybe if Lambo gets healthy and puts up strong numbers in July, they can give him a shot. If he hits one HR and drives in 5 runs per week, he would be an improvement.

    • Josh Dz

      Just throwng it out there…. over the course of a season 1HR and 5 rbis a week… while it seems like a small amount equals 28 HRs and 140 RBIs over a full season … cutch doent even out uo those numbers so how do you expect Lambo or Davis to do that

      • R Edwards

        Although I did not intend to suggest that Lambo could or would drive in 5 runs EVERY week, your point is well taken. As for Davis, 5 RBIs in a two week stretch would be an improvement. He has become nothing but a singles hitter.

    • http://www.facebook.com/andy.prough.3 Andy Prough

      I found myself today wishing we still had Mazzaro to throw out there. I’m going to assume Stolmy didn’t get properly warmed up today – that was a brutal outing by him.

    • Dave Parker’s Unfiltered Camel

      I don’t think giving Burnett the QO was necessarily the right thing to do. You’d be paying one guy a pile of money to be the seventh best option in your starting rotation. Yes, he was a better option than Wandy, but not a better option than Liriano. The Pirates have a pretty good idea of what they have and will probably trade for a starter that represents a better option than a AJ.

  • freddylang

    It’s awesome you did this today. I was just arguing the Burnett thing last night with some friends yesterday comparing Burnett to Worley, Locke, Cumpton. Those 3 have pieced together around a 0.6 WAR in far less ip and Burnett’s is 1.0. Also Burnett has hit or walked 59 guys…I believe that leads the majors. You could say these guys aren’t necessarily replacing Burnett at the top of the rotation because they are bottom guys and some will say it takes 3 guys to replace Burnett…but that is the point…he basically can be replaced with two guys that couldn’t crack the opening day rotation ad a guy they paid cash for in the offseason.

  • freddylang

    By the way, I tried to blog on Pittsburghpirates.com today and within 2 mins someone mentioned Walker moving back to catcher. Why can’t people let it go?

    • R Edwards

      How about moving Walker to first base, and starting Harrison every game at second? That would be an improvement to the lineup, without having to trade anyone. Walker is adequate at second base at best – and he is certainly big enough for first base. At first base, he could be a gold glover. We would replace Davis’ weak bat with Harrison.

      • has5025

        Someone brought this up on the FAN yesterday. Ron Cook went off on him. Basically, he’s saying that you want to move a guy that is a potential All-Star to a position he’s never played before. Just because he can play second, doesn’t mean he can play first.

        Also, you’re not gaining anything really by replacing J Hay for Gaby/Ike. Their OPS’s are very similar. You know what you’re going to get from Davis/Gaby. Harrison is still an unknown quantity. Nothing wrong with playing him as utility guy and coming in as defensive replacement for Pedro.

        • R Edwards

          First of all, I don’t consider Ron Cook to be the most knowledgeable baseball guy. Secondly, Walker is a potential all star at second base – but not because of his fielding – because of his bat. He is steady and adequate, but hardly a gold glove candidate. But, I could see him being a great first baseman – given his size, athletic ability, and experience playing 2B and catching.

          As for Harrison vs. Davis/Sanchez, why is OPS the ultimate measuring stick all of a sudden – as if it was the only stat that mattered? I will much rather have a guy who hits for average, drives in runs, and does more than draw walks and hit opposite field bloop singles.

        • http://www.facebook.com/andy.prough.3 Andy Prough

          I have no doubt Walker could play First quite adequately – so Ron Cook is just being his typical loud-mouthed histrionic self. This could be a good move. Ike Davis does nothing for me – outside of his occasional walk-off, when I absolutely love him.

        • Texas_Teacher

          Ah Pittsburgh sports talk radio fans. ;-) I remember during the height of the Mark Malone at QB period, people were still calling up and talking about Terry Bradshaw coming out of retirement. Grain of salt time with a lot of these.

  • piratemike

    The Pirates need three players to make them a top tier team.
    1. A real clean up hitter at 1st base.
    2. A real top of the rotation ace.
    3. A shut down closer.
    I know that it is simplistic and everybody knows that and moving players around to different positions may help if that can even be done and the Pirates would be willing to try that but it still doesn’t change the fact that it still doesn’t make up for the true talent at those positions that is lacking.
    Maybe the Pirates can get by with the players they have on the team at closer and ace but without that clean up hitter at 1st there is no chance.

    • csnumber23

      No chance??? This team has the best record in baseball since May 2nd!! Melancon is a very solid closer. Not sure why so many people can’t see that. His numbers are great again! A top ace would be great but they are extremely difficult to get. I still think Cole can be that guy and Liriano was last year and could get back to that again. Of course most on this site want to just dump him in the river since he struggled in the first half. I agree that a slugger at 1B would be great but I doubt they make another move there since they already traded for Davis. This team is good enough to win the division without any moves being made but I do expect some kind of move at the deadline.

      As for the future, we may have 3 aces in Glasnow, Tailon and Cole!!! I think Glasnow now has the highest ceiling which is saying a lot.

      • piratemike

        I knew that I would get this type of response from someone who thinks that if a person thinks the Pirates have some issues that it is akin to attacking his mother.
        All you seen was “the Pirates have no chance ” If you read what I wrote “without those three players the Pirates can’t be a top tier team”.
        The Pirates are a good team, they have a winning record, they have had a very good month or so.
        If you watch and listen to most “experts” outside and even some inside of Pittsburgh the Pirates are not considered on par with the top tier teams.
        There is no doubt that THE biggest problem is at the # 4 spot.
        What I wrote wasn’t meant to be a criticism of the team. It was just to point out the three areas of the team that keeps them from being considered at the top tier of teams.

        • mysonisnamedafterRoberto

          Why can’t Pedro be in the 4th? I mean he has hit 30 plus HR’s the last two years. That was without much to any depth and protection in the line-up. With the pressure of the top three and the potential of Martin’s ability to get on base behind him. Then backed up by Davis and Walker, who is much better not in the 4th spot by 6 to 7th, he will not get pitch around and will have a shot at seeing some good pitches. I think he has improved some this year in pitch recognition, too.

          But for some reason he sets in the 7th and 8th place. Last 30 days he is hitting over .270 and has a .370 OBP. I feel by putting him back into the 4th spot may spark his power and if he can continue his plate discipline he could have a huge 2nd half.

    • http://www.facebook.com/andy.prough.3 Andy Prough

      1. Why can’t Harrison play 1st?? And Lambo is batting a 1.000 OPS in AAA this year.
      2. Cole. Cole. Cole. All day long. We’ve seen what he brings under pressure in September/October.
      3. Watson.

  • bucsws2014

    Rosenthal reporting A’s get BOTH Shark & Hammels from Cubs for top SS prospect. May be other teams/players involved.

    It was unlikely Cubs would trade for such a favorable price within the NL Central, so Bucs wouldn’t get either, but dayum… seems like Epstein is never going to be done blowing that team up. Good for us I guess. Two tough pitchers Bucs would face a couple more times gone from the division.

    • leowalter

      And two tough pitchers the Brewers,Reds and Cardinals don’t have to face also. If you think the Cubs are the ” worst team in MLB ” even after this trade,you haven’t been paying attention the past couple of weeks.

      • bucsws2014

        They’ve been hitting, but one big reason their run differential seems OK is because of Hammel & Shark. Once you take away their two best arms, I think it’s fair to say they’re on their way to worst record in the NL, although certainly the D-Backs will give them a challenge. The Cubs had a nice five-man rotation. Now it’s Jackson, Arrieta, Wood and who knows what.

        • leowalter

          Arrietta and Wood are fine,Jackson,you never know about. The Cubs ‘pen has been decent also. But when you have to get Villanueva into the rotation, then you have a problem. But, see Diamondbacks, Padres and even the Mets and Phillies for teams that a lot of weaker than the Cubs.

  • Richard Bierer

    Has Cliff Lee been mentioned as a potential trade for the pirates? It seems like all the reports say Phillies are just looking to mainly relieve salary.