First Pitch: Burnett Comments on the Pirates Future, Strides They’ve Made Since 2012

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.

  • Any chance we could convince AJ for one more year? I hate seeing a guy that still has something left in the tank walk away….plus if we convince AJ to comeback and Happ, our 2016 rotation looks pretty thick (especially with Taillon and Glasnow waiting on the wings)

  • First, complements to Tim and staff for a great season.

    Now a radical question. Do the Pirates consider “going young”
    almost in a rebuilding mode and see if the many young “bucs”
    can produce the kind of results that Cubs had? Sometimes
    hungry young players can bring a new real energy. We have
    seen that as well in the past few season.

    I know is radical and a gamble, but it also could bring big results.

    Yes, I also realize we are not where we were a few years ago.

  • I really need any articles that you can post, now more than ever! The day after the Bucs are done is always one of the hardest days to deal with. What do I do??? Has Pirates Prospects posted another article, yet? I’ll check again…and again…and again. Great work, Tim!

  • I wonder, even though he had a sub-par season last year in Philly, what the Pirates record would have been if AJ came back (remember we had already signed Edinson) and replaced someone like Locke. Maybe we win the division…

    • Most likely if we still had Edison Volquez we probably wouldn’t have traded for Happ.

      • I meant last year, 2014. I think if AJ were here instead of Philly he ends up being a net positive and probably is the difference between us and a division title in 2014.

        • Don’t forget he wasn’t healthy and had a really rough year…I don’t think all of it was just the stink of that city he was playing in. (although you can’t prove that it wasn’t the main factor)

  • I’m excited for 2016, we have a lot of options, and I’m sure some unpopular choices will need to be made. There is so much depth, and not so many clear cut answers. I am really interested in bringing back Happ though. I liked him when he was young, and thought he’d be a stud and loved the way he competed for us this year.

  • Let Alvarez and Walker go, let Morse handle first until Bell is ready, Hansen and J-Hay can handle second, and use the saved money to sign someone like Zimmerman (nothing against Happ, but after what happened with Worley, I want someone a little more “safe,” although there are never any guarantees)…Locke and Morton can hopefully be serviceable until Glasnow and Taillon are ready (assuming health)

    • i don’t know how accurate this was, but I read something yesterday that said that if the Pirates bring back their Arb. eligible guys and with the payroll they already have committed to, their total payroll would be around 104 million. And that is before filling the holes or re-signing their own free agents, I’m doubting the Pirates payroll goes much above the 100 million mark. I think only one of their 3 big $ arb (Alvarez, Melancon or Walker) guys comes back next year. If they re-sign Happ I could see all 3 going.

    • Scott Kliesen
      October 9, 2015 1:04 pm

      The injury to Kang makes it much more likely Walker is coming back. As for Pedro, he fits best in an AL lineup, but I don’t see Pirates DFAing him. Could he be part of a package including Melancon? Makes sense if return is right. Lots of options.

  • Good stuff from AJ…

    Unfortunately, his leaving means we only have two good SPs to start 2016 at this point.

    I’m hoping Charlie never sees a PNC pitching mound again except as an opposing player. Locke is a #5. If we have to toss him out there, so be it. He is cheap.

    We still need two VG pitchers to contend with the Cubs and Cards.

  • Thank you A.J. for a lot of great memories. Loved watching you pitch and so glad you came back and let Pittsburgh be a part of your final season. You will be missed. Best of luck and enjoy a very long retirement.

  • Does a player officially retire? Or is it just walking away from the game with, or without, acknowledging you will not play again?

    Is there any reason the Pirates could not make a QO to AJ?

    I’m not arguing they should or would, but I’m wondering whether the QO system might have a loophole whereby a player could ‘retire’, then, after the offering window has closed, could ‘un-retire’ and not have his free agency tied to a draft pick.

    • I think announcing it is your official retirement statement. I think the QO is up to around $15 mil so, realistically, the Pirates would never offer that. But, I think the Commissioner would have to weigh in on shenanigans like you describe, if the obvious intent was to deceive or be interpreted as such.

      • I don’t know if the Pirates would offer it or not…I would think not, but, if they did, you could just say…meh, we paid him $24.5 million for 2015-16…and it looks a lot better on paper.

        But, hypothetically speaking, if the Pirates were to not offer because he claimed retirement, then he, say…signed with the Phillies….

        I suppose there is something preventing it…if not, Boras would have exploited it by now 🙂

  • AJ will always be a Pirate in heart and soul. Goodbye and the best in life with you and your youngsters. Someday they may be playing in Pittsburgh.

    • Ditto, and having the year he had in 2015 as a 38 year old was outstanding. When he came to the Pirates from the Yankees, nobody expected him to be a leader of the Rotation or be a leader in the clubhouse, but Burnett reclaimed his career and finished on top.

      The Pirates then compared to now is night and day with a large number of kids in the upper levels of the minor league system that will be starting to arrive in 2016. The Pirates were bringing up an impact player per year – Starling Marte in 2012, Gerrit Cole in 2013, Gregory Polanco in 2014, but the injuries to some young arms this year stopped that flow for 2015. However, as stated, the Pirates may see 2 or 3 impact players brought up in 2016.

      A few other things such as extensions to key personnel are needed, but there will be plenty of time “around the hot stove” to kick those options around. Another thing that has improved tremendously over the past few years is Pirates Prospects – congratulations to Tim and the staff for a great year full of positive changes.

      • Ditto on the last part for sure.

      • They compensated for the injuries stopping the flow of impact prospects coming up by signing Kang, I would say.

        • I wholeheartedly agree on the importance Kang was to this team in 2015, and because of the make-up of the team, I was not expecting a position player to be promoted. But 2015 was the year we had hopes that Taillon and possibly Kingham could get some experience in the majors, and then one would step up in 2016 to help resolve the vacancy in the Rotation left by AJ Burnett.