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The Burnett Acquisition Offers Optimism in Pittsburgh
- Updated: February 20, 2012
The Yankees and Pirates completed a trade yesterday that sent veteran right hander A.J. Burnett to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for two warm bodies and some salary relief. Pittsburgh is expected to pick up $13MM of the $31.1MM left on his contract, and immediately be placed atop the rotation for a team severely lacking power arms.
It seems interesting to me that both the Red Sox and Yankees have gone about the type of moves you rarely see by dumping needless salary. You also saw something you almost NEVER see by Pittsburgh picking up a veteran arm who is a real difference maker in the NL. The real factor to consider here is what message this sends to the folks in Pittsburgh who have been pained for many years: The Pirates are relevant again. Last year the hype they received as they approached hitting .500 for the first time in over a decade gave life to a ballclub that has been relatively insignificant for a long time. Long enough that in my lifetime I haven’t seen Pittsburgh ruffle any feathers.
The Yankees became suddenly flush with arms this offseason when they acquired Michael Pineda from the Mariners, and Burnett became essentially a commodity. Although saving $6.5MM over two seasons seems irrelevant when you consider the Yankees payroll this season, you’re noticing a trend among even the most wealthy teams. Clubs are wising up and becoming more efficient in their acquisitions, trades and payroll distribution with the inflow of bright minds into the front offices. Ten years ago this trade never happens, but the modern era of baseball is becoming more like the stock market than the money party that was not too long ago.
And then there’s Pittsburgh’s end in all of this. After years of being accused, and rightly so, that they were sticking every revenue sharing dollars in their pockets the Pirates are finally spending and showing they have a pulse. This trade doesn’t catapult them into contention, but what it does show is that Pittsburgh knows how close they are and are willing to show their fans a reason to come out this season, riding the momentum they build from last year. From a true value standpoint, this trade is really a no-brainer. The prospects the Yankees received are non-factors making essentially nothing. What Pittsburgh gets is a guy who still has awesome stuff and likely will dominate in a much weaker division. Last year with the Yankees, Burnett made $16.5MM and essentially leaked money for New York, but as a Pirate Burnett will likely see a resurgence in his value. At only 1.5 WAR last year, Burnett was worth about $6MM in value on the field. With Pittsburgh he’s likely to see an increase in his performance on the field, and when you’re only paying him ~$9.05MM per season over two, you’re likely to see a return regardless if he does it in a Pittsburgh uniform, or for someone else. Fron the Yankees perspective, Burnett was just leaking value. I would estimate between ballpark factors and the generally weaker division, Burnett will get to at least a 2 win player with potential for more. So even if he pitches an average season, Pittsburgh is likely to at least break even on the deal. While with the Yankees, Burnett costed the Yankees $7MM in value in just 2011 alone, or about ~$219,000 per start. The ironic part is that the Yankees are paying the Pirates to retain Burnett’s value, while the Pirates are paying under market value for a player who they essentially got for free.
I also see a reason why Pittsburgh will keep Burnett around. He hasn’t necessarily had the reputation for being an active role model, but Pittsburgh’s top two prospects Gerritt Cole and Jamison Taillon couldn’t compare more to the veteran. Cole is closer to the big leagues and could see time in 2012, where Taillon is a few adjustments away himself. Burnett is a big guy like both Taillon and Cole and could likely offer a lot of help to the both of them from some of the adjustments he’s had to make over the course of his career. The players will likely look to Burnett as a source for help when they inevitably struggle as most rookies do. This is, of course, if Pittsburgh doesn’t get a team knocking their socks off at the deadline to pick up Burnett for a playoff run. But the point is that there is only value here for a team that’s finally showing life both on the field, and in their checkbooks.