Analyzing the A.J. Burnett Trade

I’d rather comment about how a trade will hurt or benefit a team after it’s been completed. However, the stories of A.J. Burnett being dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates have dragged on for so long, I just can’t wait anymore. My first inclination is to say it’s a mistake for the Pirates, a team clearly building toward the future, to pick up an aging, volatile pitcher like Burnett. Yet, the move makes more and more sense as I look deeper.

Burnett has a temper. He is up and down in his success. He is expensive. Those are some of the common knocks. For the Pirates, though, Burnett’s temper may be manageable and even better with the new scenery of Pittsburgh. He can pitch without the pressures of New York media barring down on him. And he’s not going to be expensive for the Pirates if all the reports of the impending trade are correct.

Burnett has only had one year in his career in which he was below replacement level according to WAR. In 2010, he was worth -0.5 wins. However, last year he bounced back with a 1.1 WAR performance. Still well


below what a $16.5 million pitcher should be worth, but encouraging nonetheless. The fact is, Burnett was overpaid a long time ago and that’s not his fault. He had a very nice year in 2002 and a solid year in 2005. Beyond that, Burnett has been about a 2 win per year pitcher. That’s worth about $10 million per season. The Blue Jays, then the Yankees both chose to overpay him, and the pressure has been intense ever since. It’s unfair pressure, but pressure that has certainly caused some outbursts.

Very much like Carlos Zambrano, Burnett has dealt with a temper stemming from both his passion for the game and the criticism being levied on him continuously. In July of 2010 Burnett was frustrated after a poor outing, slammed open a set of clubhouse doors, and cut both his hands in the fit. In August of 2011, an overblown controversy arose when Burnett, again upset with himself about a poor outing, was caught on camera shouting expletives. I won’t go on, but you get the point. The fact is, Burnett was put in an un-winnable position. He was expected to perform beyond his capabilities, beyond what he ever had shown he could do in the past. His first year in New York, Burnett made $16.5 million. He would have had to have performed at beyond a 3 win level to have been worth that contract. That’s the Yankees fault, not his. In Pittsburgh, the expectations will be understandably tempered. The pressure will be minimized. Perhaps, those changes will allow Burnett to reel in his frustrations and work towards finishing his career strong.

According to most sources, the Yankees will eat the majority of Burnett’s remaining contract. The Pirates, if the deal is approved, will only be responsible for about $13 million of Burnett’s remaining contract, which is through 2013. According to ESPN New York, Burnett receives a year-round contract so he has already been paid a portion of his 2012 salary, but if we average out the $13 million the Pirates will owe him, they are looking at $6.5 million per season. That type of deal makes this a no-brainer for Pittsburgh. The Pirates will send two lower-level prospects to the Yankees in Diego Moreno and Exicardo Cayones.

So what exactly is Pittsburgh getting in this deal, and what are they saying to their fans? A.J. Burnett is a workhorse. He has pitched in 160 innings or more in 8 of his 13 seasons. Last year, he managed 190.1 innings. The Pirates are a team who needs a pitcher with some stamina in the rotation. Riding the early

season successes of the pitching staff last year, the Pirates fought their way to a late summer first place position in the National League Central. However, whether it be from a lack of stamina, returning toward the mean, or something else, the Pirates pitchers and the team started to falter. Burnett can help stabilize that.

Burnett’s year last year actually wasn’t horrible. Aside from his ERA over 5, he did have some success. His FIP was much lower at 4.77, so some of his misfortune was not necessarily his doing. His K/9 ratio jumped back up over 8 after a dip to as low as 6.99 in 2010. Also, his BAbip against him (.294) fell back to a number closer to his career average, indicating the contact made by batters was not as solid. It looks like much of this can be attributed to a reduction in the number of times Burnett threw his fastball. Last season he used it 56% of the time as opposed to 69% in 2010. That means he increased the usage of his other pitches, specifically the change up. He threw the change up 10.9% of the time as opposed to just 3.5% of the time in 2010. He was able to keep hitters off balance more. All combined, this led to an increase in his ability to get swinging strikes. Batters swung and missed 10% of the time which put Burnett back in line with his career average after two consecutive years under 9%.

What hurt Burnett the most was the long ball. He saw his HR/9 jump to the highest rate of his career at 1.47. He was guaranteed to give up at least one home run a game last year. Much of that may be corrected in Pittsburgh. While the Pirates home ball park is not known for suppressing offense by any means, it does have a lower park factor for home run balls. PNC Park actually has a 0.799 park factor for home runs compared to Yankee Stadium’s 1.267. If Burnett can give up less home runs, his ERA should drop, his WAR should increase, and he can be an effective pitcher for the Pirates.

The move makes perfect sense from a public relations perspective as well. The Pittsburgh fans were given a taste of what competitive baseball feels like last year. To simply ignore that would be remiss on the part of the Pirates front office. This isa fan base that has put up with a lot since 1992 and wants to feel like they did during the summer last season. By trading for Burnett without giving up too much of their future in prospects or wasting too much money, the team is telling fans they are committed not only to the future, but bringing them the best baseball possible in 2012. In what looks to be a down National League Central this year, anything is possible with these Pirates, and A.J. Burnett will certainly help.

Now all they need is Bud Selig to sign off on the deal.

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Tags: A.J. Burnett New York Yankees Pittsburgh Pirates

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