The Pirates should look to add another starting pitcher

A few days ago the Pirates were linked with soon-to-be Dodger Brandon McCarthy. While this news came out after the Pirates signed Francisco Liriano and it’s possible the Pirates were interested in Liriano or McCarthy, it would be smart of the team to look to acquire another starting pitcher. As currently projected, the Pirates rotation would consist of:

  1. Gerrit Cole
  2. Francisco Liriano
  3. A.J. Burnett
  4. Vance Worley
  5. Jeff Locke

Brandon Cumpton, Nick Kingham, Clayton Richard, and Brad Lincoln would serve as immediately available depth, as both Charlie Morton and Jameson Taillon will likely begin the season with injuries that prevent them from pitching to start the season. It also seems foolish to bet on the ability of Morton to make it through an entire season without missing at least some time due to injury, excluding the time he’s sure to miss at the beginning of the season. Taillon, ramping back up from Tommy John surgery, won’t be available for some time to begin with as the Pirates are sure to be cautious with him, and once he does return he’ll probably pitch for an extended period of time in AAA, only appearing in the majors in the event of an emergency or during the final part of the season. It’s also probable that at least one or two of the Pirates other starting pitchers will be injured at some point in the season and need to be replaced. Another issue is ineffectiveness. It’s possible that a starter might struggle and the team will feel they need to fill that rotation spot with a better option.

Fangraphs.com depth charts list the Pirates rotation as 16th in projected Wins Above Replacement from starting pitchers (8.8), tied with the Texas Rangers. It projects the following totals

Gerrit Cole 174 Innings Pitched 3.63 ERA 2.2 WAR
Francisco Liriano 169 Innings Pitched 3.59 ERA 2.4 WAR
A.J. Burnett 169 Innings Pitched 4.05 ERA 1.6 WAR
Vance Worley 160 Innings Pitched 4.08 ERA 1.2 WAR
Jeff Locke 113 Innings Pitched 4.22 ERA 0.6 WAR
Brandon Cumpton 55 Innings Pitched 4.61 ERA 0.1 WAR
Charlie Morton 47 Innings Pitched 3.89 ERA 0.4 WAR
Jameson Taillon 38 Innings Pitched 4.07 ERA 0.3 WAR
Nick Kingham 28 Innings Pitched 4.58 ERA 0.0 WAR

Obviously, it seems likely that Charlie Morton will pitch more than 47 innings, which should take innings away from the virtually replacement level Jeff Locke. The problem is that nearly all of the Pirates remaining options are replacement level. Should Charlie Morton be unable to return for longer than expected, or any other pitcher suffer an injury, the Pirates rotation will have two pitchers in it whose expected performance level will not help the team. Improving on the rotation would allow the Pirates to keep Jeff Locke as depth and bump every pitcher down a spot. When Charlie Morton returns the Pirates would then have to figure out their plans for their rotation, but it would be a good problem to have.


Any player projected to perform better than Jeff Locke this season should be considered an improvement on the fifth spot in the Pirates rotation. Once again using Fangraphs depth chart to estimate expected performance, any one of the following players would be a fit for the Pirates rotation, before you start to whittle down players based on presumed contract demands or other factors. It’s also important to note that the projections of each of these players should change marginally if that player were to sign in Pittsburgh. It’s also important to note that these are only free agent rotation candidates, and the list does not include any potential trade candidates the Pirates could explore.

Max Scherzer 208 Innings Pitched 3.02 ERA 4.1 WAR
James Shields 214 Innings Pitched 3.62 ERA 3.2 WAR
Hiroki Kuroda 179 Innings Pitched 3.72 ERA 2.6 WAR
Josh Johnson 102 Innings Pitched 4.09 ERA 1.1 WAR
Jake Peavy 160 Innings Pitched 4.07 ERA 1.0 WAR
Edinson Volquez 166 Innings Pitched 4.62 ERA 0.8 WAR
Chad Billingsley 120 Innings Pitched 4.32 ERA 0.8 WAR
Kris Medlen 83 Innings Pitched 4.14 ERA 0.8 WAR

Each of these starters represents a projected upgrade on Jeff Locke in the Pirates rotation. In narrowing the list down, it’s easy to rule out certain players. Kuroda won’t be a Pirate, as he’s repeated time and again that he’ll either re-sign with the Yankees, return to Japan, or retire. It’s also highly unlikely that Scherzer will be signing in Pittsburgh, due to his financial demands. Shields is more reasonable if the Pirates were searching for a higher tier starter, but it’s still unlikely he’ll end up in Pittsburgh. That eliminates the entire top tier of pitchers, leaving only reclamation projects and mediocre fifth starters. For 3/5 of the remaining starters, their biggest question marks are health. Medlen’s twice had Tommy John surgery, the last time in March of 2014. Any team signing him would have to be very wary of his medical reports. Billingsley’s recovering from a torn flexor tendon in his arm, an injury he too has suffered twice. Josh Johnson’s injury history is more complicated, and more extensive. The remaining two pitchers, Jake Peavy and Edinson Volquez, are innings eating fourth or fifth starters who’ll give you more in terms of innings, but sacrifice run prevention. If the Pirates seek an improvement on Jeff Locke and additional depth to their starting rotation, these are the best pitchers for the job.

The Cleveland Indians Acquire Brandon Moss

The Indians just completed the long rumored deal to acquire 1B/DH/OF Brandon Moss from Oakland in exchange for 2B Joey Wendle, a 24-year old who’ll probably move to AAA this season and could make his Major League debut. The Indians are trading from a position of strength (middle infield) and acquiring a position they where needed help. The move gives the Indians some roster flexibility, and essentially ensures that the struggling Nick Swisher will see a vast reduction in playing time. Not only is Moss a safe bet to perform better than Swisher, he’s also far cheaper. If the Indians were able to find someone willing to take a gamble on Swisher they could look to offload him, eating some of the 30 million he’s owed over the next two seasons and receiving little in return in the way of prospects.

As for what Moss can be expected to provide when he recovers from the hip surgery that currently has him expected to miss a bit of spring training, his steamer projection for next season is:

.241/.328/.448, .340 wOBA, 121 wRC+, 1.8 WAR.

Moss gets dinged because his defense is well below average, but he’ll see time at DH to help mitigate that defensive loss. Mostly, Moss gives the Indians a power hitter, one who is only projected to make 7.1 million (by MLB Trade Rumors) and has another year of arbitration after this season. Even with his defensive liabilities, Moss will still provide a surplus value to his cost, and the Indians didn’t give up much by dealing Wendle. The most interesting part of this move is the possibility of a Nick Swisher trade that it opens up. Just something to keep an eye on as the offseason progresses.

Contract tender deadline day

The Pirates have until midnight tonight to tender contracts to each of their arbitration eligible players. They’ve already begun cleaning out the players they were planning on non-tendering anyway, with Gaby Sanchez and Ike Davis making room for other players on the 40 man roster. As of today, and before any last minute moves, the Pirates have 11 players eligible for arbitration. The breakdown below lists every player, their projected salary from MLB Trade Rumors, and a comment about the likelihood the player will be tendered a contract.

Sean Rodriguez- 2.0 million

It would be pretty stupid to trade for a player and then immediately let that player go. The Pirates will tender Rodriguez.

Neil Walker – 8.6 million

Walker has the highest projected salary of any arb-eligible player, but he’s still a bargain relative to his level of production.

Francisco Cervelli – 1.1 million

A similar situation to Rodriguez, Cervelli is the de-facto starting catcher for next season, and he’s a lock to be tendered.

Mark Melancon – 7.6 million

The Pirates have shown a hesitance to pay relievers a large amount of payroll, and perhaps the least talked about point of the offseason for Pirates fans has been Melancon and the possibility of a trade. None of that affects him tomorrow though, and he’s going to get an offer.

Chris Stewart – 1.3 million

Another cheap catching option, Stewart will probably backup Cervelli next season, and he’ll almost assuredly be worth around the 1.3 million the Pirates will be paying him.

Travis Snider – 2.0 million

Whether Snider is the starting right fielder or a bench player (or traded) won’t matter tomorrow, when the Pirates will keep him around for another season.

Pedro Alvarez – 5.5 million

The move to first base should help Alvarez in the field, even if it raises his offensive expectation. He’s not a lock to be worth 5.5 million, but there’s no way the team won’t pay him that much and more in the hope that he puts together a strong offensive season.

Tony Watson – 2.0 million

2 million, Tony Watson, easy decision.

Josh Harrison – 2.2 million

The arbitration system does a great job of depressing salaries. 2.2 million would have been more than fair for Harrison before he played as well as he did last season, now it looks like a steal. His age makes him unlikely to receive a long term extension, and the Pirates might do well to just take Harrison year to year and see if he keeps up the level of performance or anything close to it.

Jared Hughes – 1.1 million

Hughes is one of those relievers whose ERA was so much better than his peripherals he had both a sub 2 ERA (1.96) and a negative fWAR -0.4. In fact, he’s never been above replacement level in his 3 year Major League career. But he’ll probably take another crack at that next season, as the Pirates should have no problem committing 1.1 million to a middle reliever who gets a fair amount of ground balls even if he doesn’t miss bats.

Vance Worley – 2.9 million

Acquired for virtually nothing, Worley has turned into a rotation lock. He’s a back end starter, but back end starters are worth more than 2.9 million, and Worley will be worth that much next season.

The biggest takeaway from this list of the Pirates arbitration eligible players is that they’re probably going to tender all of them. They’ve already removed the obvious non-tender candidates, and they replaced them with players they want to keep. With the exceptions of Walker and Melancon, no one here is making above 6 million dollars. They’re fairly cheap arbitration eligibles, and they’ll hopefully settle their contracts sooner rather than later so the Pirates can be aware of their payroll obligations and allocate available resources elsewhere.

Pirates acquire Sean Rodriguez and maybe he’ll platoon at first

The Pirates acquired Sean Rodriguez, who the Rays had designated for assignment last week, for a player to be named later and cash. Rodriguez has been a a prototypical utility player for the Rays, playing every position but pitcher and catcher (and he was apparently the emergency catcher in Tampa Bay last season). He’s not a very good hitter, but the fact that he’s right handed and the player he’s replacing on the 40 man roster is Gaby Sanchez, who was the right handed half of the platoon at first the past two seasons, has led to the suggestion that Rodriguez will be playing that role for the Pirates next season. I don’t see why the Pirates would do that, as using Rodriguez primarily at first base minimizes his value defensively. If you have a player who can play shortstop (among many other positions) and 25% of the time you lock him into playing first base, you’re limiting the managers ability to get creative with the lineup every day. And while in his career Rodriguez has lefties at an above league average rate, he hasn’t hit them at a rate (112 wRC+) where I would expect him to provide much value as a first baseman. Rodriguez is a near lock to make the roster with his projected 2 million dollar arbitration salary, and the positional flexibility he’ll provide will probably make him what the club expected Josh Harrison to be last season before he broke out: A super-utility player who can play anywhere well enough to justify putting him on the field and a right handed bat off the bench that won’t perform well, but also won’t suck. As for the right handed half of the first base platoon now that Gaby Sanchez is gone, that player probably isn’t on the roster yet.

The Pirates payroll this far into the offseason

With the signing of A.J. Burnett, the Pirates filled an important void in their rotation for next season: quality innings. Even though Burnett is a lesser version of the one who played for the Pirates before, and the deal carries with an amount of risk, he’s still going to log innings. It’s also easy to gloss over any worries about Burnett’s performance by remembering that there’s not really any such thing as a bad one year deal, and especially in this case when Burnett only costs 8.5 million dollars, and the Pirates are in such need of rotation help. The rotation currently projected on MLB Depth Charts is listed below, with each starter’s Steamer projections for next season. Now that the Pirates have filled one gap in the rotation with Burnett, it’s important to look at how much money they have available to continue to seek improvement for next years rotation, and the team in general.

The Pirates rotation for 2015 now looks like this, with Steamer projections:

Gerrit Cole: 29 GS, 182 IP, 8.2 K/9, 2.83 BB/9, 0.72 HR/9, .294 BABIP, 70.6% LOB, 3.64 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 2.4 WAR

A.J. Burnett: 32 GS, 182 IP, 7.82 K/9, 3.49 BB/9, 0.77 HR/9, .299 BABIP, 68.3% LOB, 4.20 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 1.8 WAR

Vance Worley: 31 GS, 192 IP, 6.14 K/9, 2.21 BB/9, 0.85 HR/9, .298 BABIP, 68.7% LOB, 4.10 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 1.5 WAR

Jeff Locke: 31 GS, 182 IP, 6.51 K/9, 3.45 BB/9, 0.74 HR/9, .297 BABIP, 68.7% LOB, 4.24 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 1.0 WAR

Brandon Cumpton: 25 GS, 144 IP, 5.63 K/9, 3.04 BB/9, 0.90 HR/9, .297 BABIP, 67.4% LOB, 4.62 ERA, 4.39 FIP, 0.2 WAR

That projection for Burnett makes him the second most valuable pitcher the Pirates have, and it’s hard to oversell how important he can be for the team this season. For just 8.5 million, the Pirates have acquired a middle of the rotation starter to help stabilize a rotation that, before his acquisition, had at least two glaring question marks. Now, the only question mark remaining is Brandon Cumpton. Based on past performance, scouting reports, and the projection above, it seems unlikely that Cumpton’s future is that of a big league starter, and that if he does manage to slot into the rotation, the value he’ll provide will be roughly replacement level. The Pirates should look to improve on Cumpton, and use him as depth in the likely event of an injury. I assume the Pirates will try to do just that, but here’s where they stand from a payroll perspective so far this offseason:

Committed Money (per Cots Contracts, committed to 4 major leaguers and Jose Tabata): $32,208,333

Estimated Salary Arbitration Figures (per MLB Trade Rumors):

  • Gaby Sanchez (5.025) – $2.7MM
  • Neil Walker (4.166) – $8.6MM
  • Ike Davis (4.155) – $4.4MM
  • Mark Melancon (4.098) – $7.6MM
  • Chris Stewart (4.091) – $1.3MM
  • Travis Snider (4.091) – $2.0MM
  • Pedro Alvarez (4.085) – $5.5MM
  • Tony Watson (3.101) – $2.0MM
  • Josh Harrison (3.033) – $2.2MM
  • Jared Hughes (2.162) – $1.1MM
  • Vance Worley (2.139) – $2.9MM

Total: $40,300,000

Total So Far: $72,208,333

That’s not counting the cost of the rest of the 25 man roster who would be making Major League minimum, which is roughly $500,000 per player. It also doesn’t factor in that the Pirates are extremely unlikely to tender contracts to every arbitration eligible player. For example, they seem unlikely to tender Ike Davis when Pedro Alvarez is apparently more valuable, so barring a trade of Alvarez, Davis can be dropped from the projection to save about 4.4 million. There’s also the chance that Gaby Sanchez is non-tendered, which would free up an additional 2.7 million, but that’s less seemingly less likely than the departure of Ike Davis and I’m not going to include it in the projection. Since the projected non-tender of Davis leaves the Pirates with 11 spots for Major Leaguers making league minimum, that increases payroll by about 5.5 million. So subtracting 4.4 and adding 5.5, payroll increases by 1.1 million.

Total So Far: 73,208,333

This is a very rough estimate of Pirates payroll, and it’s almost definitely off by a few million dollars. The team will likely want to give itself flexibility should it end up paying more than expected in arbitration. The total amount spent on payroll last season, again per Pirates Prospects, was $81,394,476. With that in mind, it’s probably fair to expect the Pirates payroll to increase a modest amount, and be somewhere above 85 million this offseason. That leaves anywhere from 12 million to whatever the ceiling will be for free agent acquisitions and trades before the Pirates max out their budget. The Blue Jays acquisition of Russell Martin rules out the possibility of a return to the Pirates. That means that the Pirates, if they’re going to continue to spend money this offseason (and they should), will be forced to spend it elsewhere. They’ll probably look to acquire more starting pitching. It’s also important to note that just because the Pirates have this money to spend and have made it available for Major League payroll does not necessarily mean the team will commit all of that money to payroll. The Pirates aren’t the type of team of that will spend money just for the sake of spending money. They have a few noticeable holes that they can and probably will look to improve upon, but that will not definitively lead to the team using up their entire budget. They’ll also probably want to leave room for any acquisitions they can make via trade at midseason.

A Guess at The Pirates Wild Card Roster

Now that we know for sure the Pirates are playing the Giants in the wild card game, we can speculate on what the roster will be for that single playoff game. That the wild card is just one game allows team to use a roster that they otherwise wouldn’t in the hopes of maximizing their chances of winning that one game. While a number of spots are seemingly guaranteed, a few are still open to debate, including a few starting positions. Since the Giants will be using Madison Bumgarner and he’s left handed, the Pirates will likely be using a lineup that’s primarily right handed.

The Roster

Starters:

Pitcher: The Pirates attempted to win the division, which is fine. They just happened to use their two best pitchers doing it. That leaves Edinson Volquez to start the wild card game. Volquez’s ERA suggests he’s been lucky, and I don’t have a lot of faith in him to continue doing what he did this year going forward, which is why find it hard to get on the #extendEd bandwagon. With that said, it’s one game and predicting how one player will perform in a single game is basically impossible. Keep an eye on Volquez’s control, because walks have been his biggest problem in the past, and if he struggles early, Hurdle should get the bullpen up quickly.

Catcher: A position the seemed so certain a week ago now has a lot of uncertainty. It’s a pretty safe bet that Russell Martin will be the starter behind the plate, despite missing the last two games with a lingering hamstring injury. He’s a far better catcher than Chris Stewart, who’s replaced him while he’s been injured.

1B: With Bumgarner on the mound, the Pirates will likely play Gaby Sanchez at first. Sanchez has endured a difficult season overall, but continues to hit lefties enough to justify himself as the weaker half of a first base platoon. The Pirates might look to replace him in the offseason, but for now, he’s the best option available.

2B: Neil Walker will bat right handed against Bumgarner, and while he’s generally been a below average hitter against lefties, this season he’s actually had a fair amount of success. That it came over 120 plate appearances makes it virtually meaningless and far more likely that he’ll continue to struggle, but it probably means that Clint Hurdle will be willing to have Walker hit right handed in a big situation. This does not excite me.

3B: Whatever happens to Josh Harrison next year, there’s no taking away the season he had this year, or his amazing beard (I’ve considered the idea that he’s a modern day version of the biblical Sampson, whose strength came from his hair, only in this case, his power stems from his beard. Also his weird kick the bat twice between every pitch routine that has annoyed me for three years now).

SS: Jordy Mercer held his own at a position that was expected to be a problem for the Pirates going into the season. He put up slightly below average offensive numbers, but his glove more than made up for it and he turned in a fine season. He’s another right handed bat in the lineup.

LF: Starling Marte will probably hit a triple or something on a pitch six inches outside the strike zone and it’ll be awesome. Take that Pablo Sandoval.

CF: Andrew McCutchen.

RF: This could be either Jose Tabata or Travis Snider. Tabata has the benefit of being right handed against the lefty Bumgarner, but he’s also not very good. Snider only recently started looking good, and it’s to the Pirates credit that they didn’t give up on him a few months ago, choosing instead to outright Tabata. Either way, the player who isn’t starting will likely find himself on the bench.

The Bench

Catcher: Chris Stewart had to leave the game today with an apparent left hand injury. X-Rays were negative, meaning there’s no break in the hand, per Rob Biertempfel’s tweet earlier tonight, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be available for Wednesday. He probably will be, so it’s a good idea to include him on a projection of the roster. Last season the Pirates also included a third catcher on their wild card game roster, and it’s hard to imagine them not doing the same this season with their first two catchers banged up. That means Tony Sanchez‘s spot is safe for another game.

Infield: Ike Davis, as the left handed part of the first base platoon, is guaranteed a spot, and will likely appear in the game as a pinch hitter should the Pirates get to Bumgarner early enough. Clint Barmes will make the roster as a utility infielder, and primarily a backup shortstop. He might get in the game as a defensive replacement for Jordy Mercer in the late innings. He’s also a candidate for Hurdle to double switch into the game at some point. Andrew Lambo will probably be on the roster as a left handed pinch hitter. The last spot on the team will likely come down to utility-man Chase d’Arnaud and Brent Morel. Neither player is likely to bat, so if the Pirates pick Morel they’ll be making sure they have an extra infielder in case any player gets injured (specifically third base, even though Clint Barmes could cover that position if needed). If they pick d’Arnaud, they’re opening the possibility of using him as a pinch runner in the later innings. I think they’ll go with d’Arnaud, but Morel wouldn’t shock me either.

Outfield: The other of the Jose Tabata/Travis Snider decision will likely find himself on the playoff roster, but I wouldn’t guarantee Tabata’s spot above Gregory Polanco‘s, who Hurdle likes to use as a pinch runner or defensive replacement in right field late in games.

Bullpen: Last season, the Pirates carried Gerrit Cole on the wild card roster in the event that they needed another starter. That’s something I would expect them to do again, only this time with Jeff Locke or Vance Worley backing up Volquez. It’ll probably be Locke because he’s left handed. The Pirates carried seven relievers last season, so following my pattern of assuming they’ll do the same this season, that makes Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, John Holdzkom, Justin Wilson, Jared Hughes, John Axford, and Jeanmar Gomez the likeliest candidates to make the roster, although replacing Gomez with Bobby LaFromboise might be a good idea to add another lefty to the bullpen.

The total roster:

C: Russell Martin, Chris Stewart, Tony Sanchez (3)

IF: Gaby Sanchez, Ike Davis, Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, Clint Barmes, Andrew Lambo, Chase d’Arnaud (8)

OF: Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, Gregory Polanco (5)

P: Edinson Volquez, Jeff Locke, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, John Holdzkom, Justin Wilson, Jared Hughes, John Axford, Jeanmar Gomez (9)

Why trading for A.J. Burnett is a bad idea

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.

STATS

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. 

CONTRACT

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. 

SUMMATION

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. 

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