PITTSBURGH — When A.J. Burnett came to the Pirates, the organization was in much different shape. They were coming off a 72-90 season that saw them collapse in the second half after acting like pseudo-contenders in the first half. They weren’t able to attract any interesting free agents. If you said “Ray Searage can fix this pitcher” you’d be laughed at. The farm system had a lot of potential, but mostly with a lot of players at the lower levels. The team was just starting to take a dive into unconventional approaches like extreme defensive shifts and focusing on catcher pitch framing.
Now? The team is coming off a 98 win season, and despite the loss in the Wild Card game, are considered one of the best in baseball. They can attract pretty much any free agent they want, although realistically there will be some they can’t afford. Any struggling pitcher that is brought in is met with “Ray Searage can fix him”. The farm system is starting to produce talent, with a big wave on the way next year. And the team is a leader in adopting unconventional approaches, for better or worse.
Burnett noticed it all when reflecting on his time here after Wednesday’s loss.
“The strides they made from day one when I was here, compared to where they are now, it’s night and day,” Burnett said. “A lot of people in this room that the ceiling just keeps going up. Hopefully they just keep competing and don’t stop.”
You might chalk that up to being a biased opinion, but Burnett has never been afraid to speak his mind about the team, whether it was criticizing the defensive shifts, or criticizing their approach in 2012 at the end of the season. Even if you do chalk it up to being biased, it’s hard to argue with the results. Aside from the records, let’s take a look at those trends from above.
The Ability to Attract Free Agents
THEN: The Pirates couldn’t sign free agents. Their best bets were guys like Rod Barajas, Clint Barmes, Erik Bedard, and Nate McLouth. On contending teams, these would be bench players, if not depth options, and Bedard would either be a fifth starter or rotation depth. On the 2011 Pirates, they were all expected to play big roles. They got Burnett in a pre-season trade, but at the time he was seen as a bit of a risk, with poor numbers in New York. It was so bad that Derrek Lee opted to retire, rather than re-signing with the Pirates.
NOW: The Pirates came off a year where they signed Francisco Liriano, despite Liriano being one of the better pitchers in baseball the previous two years. They’ve got people who want to return to the organization, and every free agent who comes in talks about how they heard nothing but good things about the organization. Plus, they win a lot, which is always something players want to see.
The Ray Searage Factor
THEN: You can add Jim Benedict to this as well. The ability to rework the mechanics of pitchers was already in place. Charlie Morton got a complete overhaul the previous year, and was a much different pitcher than he was pre-2011. Kevin Correia pitched well with the Pirates, and while he isn’t impressive, this does represent the problem at this time. Correia didn’t have the biggest upside, which means he could never put up ace-like numbers over a season, even if he was pitching to full potential. Those were the types of pitchers the Pirates could attract.
NOW: The Pirates are coming off a year where they added a struggling J.A. Happ, then watched him turn into one of the best pitchers in baseball over the final two months, after just a little over a week of working with him. Going forward, they should continue to have strong pitching, even without paying big dollars or considering the farm system, just because of the amazing work Benedict and Searage do.
The Farm System
THEN: Gerrit Cole, Josh Bell, and Tyler Glasnow were just drafted the year before, and about to play in their first full seasons. Jameson Taillon was entering his second season, and making the jump to Bradenton. Starling Marte was in Triple-A, about to make the jump to the majors. Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson were about to get on the map with breakout seasons in West Virginia. Elias Diaz also got an aggressive push to that same level, but didn’t break out until a few years later. The Pirates had a lot of talent in their system, but it was much more geared towards upside and potential, with a lot of risk.
NOW: Cole, Marte, and Polanco are in the majors. Glasnow, Taillon, Bell, Hanson, and Diaz could join them at some point next season. The Pirates continue to add interesting high-upside guys, and have stocked depth throughout the system, while getting big breakout performers each year. They’re to the point that they can trade prospects from positions of strength, add to the MLB club, and not be impacted in the long-term. Even after graduating the 2016 class, the Pirates will still have plenty of talented prospects to follow, and continued breakouts will keep the system strong. There’s still a lot of talent, even after losing three elite prospects to the majors, but now there is less risk involved with these guys.
The Unconventional Approach
To be honest, it’s hard to quantify this, as it’s difficult to get data on how often a team shifted in 2012 vs this year. The pitch framing numbers are there, and Russell Martin and Francisco Cervelli both excel in those areas, providing a massive upgrade over the catchers in previous years. They moved on to a team-oriented focus on rest, rather than focusing on individual playing time and performances this year. That’s another area that is hard to quantify.
One key difference is how the team handles losing. The team wasn’t a serious contender in 2011, and collapsed in the second half. In the first year Burnett was in Pittsburgh, they collapsed even harder. Now? They’re not a team that falls apart.
“There’s some things in here that are special. Some special players,” Burnett said. “When you’ve got a good group of dudes that come in day-in and day-out and do their thing, whether they win or lose they’re the same people next day, you can’t beat that. A lot of chemistry is not talked about. It’s overlooked. The clubhouse is not talked about, it’s overlooked, but we’ve got a hell of one here.”
Going forward, the Pirates will have to continue this without Burnett. When pressed on whether he was 100% going to retire, Burnett said he was done.
“This is it,” Burnett said. “A lot of good memories here, a lot of good people. Obviously you want to go further, obviously you want to do more things, get another start, all of that good stuff.”
Burnett described his approach at the end of the year as emptying the gas tank each start, knowing that he would be close to an empty tank at the end of the year. He was pitching like this year would be his last. He was doing so because of a pre-season plan to pitch one more year then retire and spend time with his kids.
“I’m really excited,” Burnett said about the extra time with his kids. “I’m not going to lie, I’m sad as heck. I’m going to miss competing. I’ll miss being around it. But it’s time to start the next chapter. It’s all about them. That’s the reason the decision was made before the season.”
But Burnett did speak fondly of his final season in Pittsburgh, and got a bit choked up when describing his favorite moments from the season.
“Being back with these guys, being back in the city. I was a little uncertain how that would go, considering I left,” Burnett said. “But it was better than anything I ever imagined. Fans, games, moments. You can’t name them all. But getting back in here with this group, and being here in front of this city, it’s how I wanted to go out.”
Fortunately, Burnett is leaving a Pirates team that is in much better shape than when he arrived. Pre-2012, they couldn’t even get a guy like him, unless there were a ton of red flags around his numbers, and a high salary to pay. Not to mention, a stipulation from the player that restricted other teams (specifically the Angels) from adding him. It was the perfect storm. Now? They’ll have their choice of who they want to replace Burnett, with the disclaimer that they probably can’t go out and get a guy like David Price.
Burnett did play a role in this. Without his revival in 2012, they might not have appeared as a destination for guys like Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. Without those two, they don’t contend in 2013. In a way, Burnett’s performance in 2012 helped to put this ball in motion, with a lot of other factors contributing. And as Burnett said, the Pirates are a team that will continue to win, because that ball keeps rolling forward, leading to better and better things for the Major League squad as the seasons go on.
**Burnett on Neil Walker potentially departing this off-season: “He does have an interesting future ahead of him. Hopefully he can stay here where he belongs.”
**Some prospect blogger who loves comic book movies asked Burnett how many times he has seen the Batman vs Superman trailer: “None. They didn’t ask me if I wanted him [Ben Affleck] to play it or not, so I didn’t watch it.”
**The Wild Card Game Was a Perfect Argument Against a One-Game Playoff. A look at some of the outside factors that impacted the Pirates in this one game, other than the biggest factor, which was Jake Arrieta.
**Pending Free Agents Happ, Rodriguez, and Bastardo Open to Returning to the Pirates. Next week I’ll be recapping the season, and we’ll be starting the early looks at the upcoming off-season soon. This was the first step to that, with some quotes from my conversations with these three players on Wednesday.
**I’m heading home to Florida tomorrow, and we’ve got a few articles scheduled to go up throughout the day. While it’s disappointing that the season is over, I’m looking forward to spending more than just a few days at home for the first time since mid-July. The upside there is that I still have plenty of prospect interviews on my recorder, which will lead to a lot of off-season features after our season recaps.