After signing a one year deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates, A.J. Burnett said a lot of things that Pirates fans might have never thought they would hear just a few years ago. He talked about how he wanted to end his career in a place that he liked, and that his one year deal with the Pirates would be his last season. He talked about taking less money in order to allow the team to be better around him. And most importantly?
“I want to win a ring, and I want to win a ring in Pittsburgh,” Burnett said to the Pittsburgh media via conference call this afternoon.
Shortly after Burnett became a free agent, he got in contact with the Pirates about a return. He told Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington that he was interested in returning to the Pirates if Huntington would have him. And he wanted to make sure Huntington knew it wasn’t about the money. That much became clear today when he accepted an $8.5 M deal, which is $4.25 M less than the guaranteed money he turned down last week in Philadelphia.
“It’s about winning to me. It’s about how many I’ve got left,” Burnett said. “And in my mind and my heart, in my family’s minds, I’ve got one left. I want to be able to go out when I want, and I’m so lucky to have the opportunity to go out where I want. There’s no other place I want to finish my career but in that city, with those people, and with this organization and the guys in the locker room.”
Huntington said that the deal came together fairly quickly after Burnett became a free agent.
“We had a very good discussion,” Huntington said. “He made it clear that he wanted to do everything he could to make this work. Obviously the man left a lot of money on the table to come back to Pittsburgh, and take care of unfinished business.”
Burnett took less money because he said he wanted to give Huntington what he needed to add other parts to the team.
“Whatever Neal needs to get this team better, I didn’t want to get in the way of that,” Burnett said.
As for what Huntington could do from here, the team payroll currently sits around $75 M, and that includes Ike Davis, who could be non-tendered or traded, taking the amount closer to $70 M. That gives the Pirates plenty of room to add an additional starter, which they still need. Huntington said that this move rules out bringing back both of their departing pitchers, Edinson Volquez and Francisco Liriano.
“It makes it tougher to bring both back,” Huntington said. “We still have interest in adding to our club, whether that’s in the rotation, in our bullpen, our position player group, our bench depth. We’d like to impact as many of those segments as we can. A.J. gives us another quality starter to add into our rotation, but that doesn’t prohibit us, or certainly doesn’t stop us from adding other guys.”
As for Burnett’s impact, he’s a much different pitcher now than he was in 2012-13 with the Pirates. He had a 4.59 ERA last year with Philadelphia, although his 3.95 xFIP suggests he was unlucky. However, it wasn’t just misfortune. He had his second worst walk rate since 2004, and saw his strikeouts drop from 2013 to 2014. Returning to the Pirates should help his walk totals. He posted two of the best BB% totals of his career in his two years in Pittsburgh.
The other issue was a sports hernia, which Burnett pitched through all season. He said that the hernia was “grabbing” and that it didn’t show up in every start, but was there most of the season. He had surgery on the hernia on October 3rd, and will start training next week. Burnett said that he was “feeling really good” and should be “full go” by Spring Training. Huntington said that they felt the hernia impacted his numbers some.
“We do feel that the hernia hindered him some,” Huntington said. “We do think there were some other factors, there were some indicators that we still think there’s a good pitcher here that can still win big games for us, that can still eat innings, and that can still put us in position to win every time he takes the ball.”
At any rate, Burnett shouldn’t be expected to be a top of the rotation guy like he was in his previous time with the Pirates. But he should be expected to be a middle of the rotation starter. And don’t rule out Burnett’s love for Pittsburgh playing a factor.
“I want to be in a place where I was really happy. This is just where I belong,” Burnett said of his return. “There’s certain feelings you get. Certain gut feelings you’ve got to go with, and this was a no-brainer for me.”
Huntington also talked about what could be described as the best case scenario in this deal.
“Maybe we’ll get a happy, and healthy, and motivated pitcher to finish his career on a great note, and we’ve got some belief that we can do some things to help him do that.”
If that happens, and if the Pirates use Burnett’s savings to boost the rest of the team, then Burnett might just have a legit shot at that ring in Pittsburgh.