The Pirates are rumored to be looking to add starting pitching as the trade deadline, and a potential trade target that Pirate fans seem to be clamoring for is Philadelphia Phillies pitcher and ex-Pirate A.J. Burnett. Such talk is sure to come up this weekend, with Burnett slated to return to PNC Park on Sunday to pitch against Jeff Locke. Despite fan wishes, there aren’t a lot of reasons for the Pirates, or really any team, to want to add Burnett.
From a sheer numbers standpoint, Burnett hasn’t been the same pitcher in 2014 that he’s been throughout his career, or even the same pitcher he was in 2013 with the Pirates.
Burnett’s career line (including this season)
387 GS, 2464 IP, 21.6% K, 9.5% BB, .291 BABIP, 71.6% LOB, 50.3% GB, 3.98 ERA, 3.88 FIP, 3.69 xFIP, 38.2 WAR
Burnett in 2013, his last season in Pittsburgh
30 GS, 191 IP, 26.1% K, 8.4% BB, .305 BABIP, 71.8% LOB, 56.5% GB, 3.30 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 2.92 xFIP, 4.0 WAR
Here’s Burnett’s line so far in 2014
17 GS, 111 IP, 17.9 K%, 9.9 BB%, .284 BABIP, 70.6% LOB, 48.6% GB, 3.89 ERA, 4.10 FIP, 4.15 xFIP, 0.7 WAR
And here are his projected stats for the rest of the season, curtesy of ZIPS and Steamer
ZIPS: 15 GS, 90 IP, no K%/BB%*, .316 BABIP, 71.6% LOB, no GB%, 4.09 ERA, 3.94 FIP, no xFIP, 0.6 WAR
Steamer: 14 GS, 85 IP, no K%/BB%*, .297 BABIP, 69.3% LOB, no GB%, 3.97 ERA, 3.63 FIP, no xFIP, 0.9 WAR
*both projection systems don’t have K% or BB%, but using their posted K/9 and BB/9, it’s easy to see that they both think Burnett will strike more batters per game out than he has thus far and walk less per game than he has.
Understanding that that’s a lot of numbers to throw out in a very small amount of space, here’s a simple breakdown: Burnett, solely from a simple examination of his numbers so far, is striking out less hitters than both his career average and his last season as a Pirate. He’s walking almost the same percentage of batters though. His strand rate is right in line with his career numbers too. Where the numbers start to look bad is when you get to Burnett’s FIP this season. Ballooning from 2.92 to 4.10, it’s partly due to Burnett allowing more fly balls, some of which are turning into home runs (9 so far). He’s also hitting more batters than past seasons. The biggest problem, though, is his strikeout rate dropping 8% from 26.1% to 17.9%. That’s what’s causing the jump in his FIP, and even though both projection systems are expecting him to strike out more per 9 innings, there are some reasons to doubt that that will happen. Not only that though, both projection systems also expect Burnett’s ERA to spike, and even if that spike isn’t large, the Pirates would still be paying for a decline in performance, not the player Burnett has been in the past or even earlier this season. You could say that returning to Pittsburgh where defensive shifts, even if Burnett doesn’t like them, are more prevalent than Philadelphia would benefit Burnett, and probably it would, but he’s getting less ground balls this year anyway. A lot of that is probably small sample size noise, but it’s possible Burnett is aging into a pitcher more prone to giving up fly balls, and that’s a bad sign for any team looking to acquire him.
PITCHES AND HEALTH
Burnett’s pitching with a hernia, and he’s elected to forgo surgery for the time being so he can continue pitching. The recovery time on that surgery is 6-8 weeks, so Burnett could easily have it done in the offseason and be ready for 2015, but the more important thing is how the hernia is impacting him in 2014. It’s clearly affecting him to some degree, as the article liked above mentions that his control suffered in at least one start. It’s probable that the hernia is a factor in his decrease in strikeouts. It’s also probably a factor in his diminished velocity.
As pitchers age, it isn’t uncommon for their velocity to tick down a few miles per hour. That usually diminishes their effectiveness to an extent. A.J. Burnett is 37. He’s seen his velocity decrease almost annually since 2007, where his fastball averaged 97 MPH. In his time with the Pirates it averaged 93.34 MPH. This season his fastball is averaging 92.47 MPH. Likewise his curveball’s down from 84 to 83 MPH, and his changeup is down from 88 to 87 MPH. That’s a significant drop in a small amount of time. Likely it’s some combination of age and his injury that’s led to the velocity decrease. As a result, he’s missing fewer bats than he used to, and that’s the reason for the drop in strikeouts.
Burnett’s contract is perhaps the most prohibitive part of acquiring him. Any team looking to acquire him isn’t just picking up a 37 year old injured pitcher, they’re picking up that pitcher’s 38 year old season too. Burnett’s contract is oddly structured, seemingly designed to give him control over his fate for next season. He’s making 7.5 million in salary this season, with a 1 million dollar signing bonus. That signing bonus is an interesting part of Burnett’s deal. As part of it, Burnett gets 2.75 million dollars in the offseason this year, and another 3.75 million dollars on June 30th next season. That’s another 6.5 million to add to Burnett’s salary next season (if the Phillies don’t agree to pay that in any deal). The next season part of Burnett’s deal is a little complicated as well, with both the Phillies (or the acquiring team) and Burnett holding a mutual option on Burnett’s 2015 season, at a price of 15 million, with a 1 million dollar buyout. But Burnett also holds a player option for 7.5 million that he can exercise if the team declines their part of the mutual option. That player option goes up depending on the number of games started, up to a maximum of 12.75 million with 32 games started (interestingly, the exact number ZIPS predicts Burnett will get). That means that, assuming Burnett doesn’t retire at the end of the season (and why would he, when he has so much money coming his way in 2015), the acquiring team is going to be on the hook for at least Burnett’s signing bonus (6.5 million) and his player option, which is probably going to end up between 11.75 and 12.75 million. So that’s a total of 18.25 or 19.25 million the acquiring team is going to have to pay for next season, not counting paying Burnett’s contract for the rest of this season and assuming the acquiring team declines their half of the mutual option. He also has a .75 million dollar bonus for 30 games started, and he’s on pace to get to that milestone this season.
If the Pirates weren’t willing to extend Burnett a qualifying offer after last season, why would they be willing to commit to paying the remainder of Burnett’s contract this season (probably around 3.75 million) and his salary for next season, probably a little less than 20 million, to Burnett now? You can say that the Phillies would obviously eat money to make the deal happen, and that’s fine, but are they going to eat enough to justify a team acquiring an injured pitcher with declining velocity and effectiveness? How much would they have to eat to justify the deal? There are a number of other options, if the Pirates want to add starting pitching, there a number of cheaper, less complicated options the team can pursue.