The Philadelphia Phillies will reportedly sign free agent pitcher A.J. Burnett to a one-year, $16MM contract for 2014. It had long been postulated that Burnett would either retire from baseball or pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates for the upcoming season. The Pirates had declined to give Burnett a qualifying offer this offseason, which would have paid him around $14MM, had he accepted it. Now, the Pirates will get no draft pick compensation for losing one of their top pitchers to their in-state rivals from the NL East.
In what has been a bizarre offseason, especially in regard to those players affected by the draft pick compensation issue, the Burnett saga might be one of the weirdest storylines. It was reported he would come to a decision soon after the 2013 season ended, then was mum until recently when rumors started to swirl that he’d pitch in 2014, perhaps for a team close to his Maryland home, whether it be the Baltimore Orioles, the Phillies, the Washington Nationals, or the Pirates. Of that group, Pittsburgh is the farthest away, but not by a landslide.
Much is unknown about why the Pirates declined to give Burnett the qualifying offer and why Burnett would choose to sign with Philadelphia, which is generally viewed as less likely to make the postseason than the Pirates, Nationals and maybe the Orioles, too. What this development does mean, for now at least, is that the Pirates’ starting pitching rotation has been weakened by the loss of Burnett, who only picked up a win five more times than he did a loss for the Pirates (a 26-21 record in the regular season) but posted an ERA around 3.50 in 61 starts for them over the last two years. He also made a start in the 2013 NLDS for the Pirates, but was crushed by the Cardinals.
The Pirates still have good rotation options with Francisco Liriano leading the way. Backing him up will be a group of veterans such as Wandy Rodriguez, Charlie Morton, Edinson Volquez, and Jeff Locke along with rising youngsters Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, among others. That Liriano signing looks absolutely huge for the Pirates now.
Barring a surprise signing of Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, who are affected by the draft pick compensation rules that have wrecked this offseason for a number of players, the Pirates could conceivably add a Chris Capuano on a one-year deal. After that, the quality in the free agent market drops off considerably, with Aaron Harang, Jair Jurrjens, Joe Saunders, former Pirate Jeff Karstens and others still out there. I wouldn’t say that the loss of Burnett is earth-shattering for the Pirates, but it does shift the paradigm slightly in favor of a wanna-be NL Central contender like the Milwaukee Brewers, who will welcome any stubbing of toes from the big three in the division. Should the Pirates have trouble with their starting staff, and the Reds not be as threatening in 2014, the Brewers could see an opening to move up in the standings over of the course of the season. Granted, Burnett was going to be an expensive aging pitcher for the Pirates in 2014, unless he’d taken a massive pay cut. But losing him to the Phillies has got to sting a bit. The Brewers will take any favorable bounces they can get.