Did A.J. Burnett Just Stick It To The Pittsburgh Pirates?
After months of silence, free-agent A.J. Burnett, the leader of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ rotation for the past two seasons and one of the most effective starting pitchers in baseball over that time, says he will put off retirement and be back to pitch in 2014. As an unnamed source told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “He’s made the decision he is going to play.”
If so, Burnett immediately rockets to the top of a crazy offseason market for starting pitching, with highly regarded free agents Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana still on the board. Burnett’s WAR has topped both Jimenez and Santana through the past two years, and since the Pirates did not make a $14.1 million qualifying offer, he is the only one of this trio whom a team can sign without giving up a compensatory draft pick.
The Pirates have maintained that they would do everything they could to retain Burnett’s services, and have avoided making big rotation moves this offseason. For his part, Burnett told the Tribune-Review last spring that he was considering retirement, but that he would like to be there when the Pittsburgh finally turns things around. Even during the run up to last year’s playoffs in September, Burnett called the chances of his retirement “50-50,” and said he wanted to go out as a Buc.
Against this backdrop, holding off on a qualifying offer probably made sense to the small-market Pirates, who may have hoped that they could sign Burnett for one more year at something less than $14.1 million.
Now, the Tribune-Review source says that Burnett will test the market.
It’s a market that saw the New York Yankees sign Japan’s Masahiro Tanaka to a $155 million seven-year contract. As the best starting arm not tied to draft pick compensation, Burnett could command more than $15 million on a one-year deal.
Consider the Pirates’ pickle. If they had made the qualifying offer and Burnett accepted, they would have solidified next year’s rotation early in the offseason at a price probably below market. If Burnett rejected the offer, they would have considerable leverage in re-signing him since other teams in the market would have to give up a draft pick. At the least if someone did grab him, the Pirates would get a pick in return for their trouble. But having gambled that Burnett wanted to end his career in Pittsburgh, they may end up with nothing.
For his part, Burnett breezes into a hot market for his services unencumbered by a compensatory pick that has cooled demand for other top free agents. One wonders whether the “Burnett gambit” will become part of the hot-stove lexicon in the future.