When I first heard the news that the Pittsburgh Pirates were going to be getting pitcher A.J. Burnett from the New York Yankees, my thoughts for the most part tended to be like my thoughts on all the moves the Pirates front office makes for veteran players- super.
It was the Pirates basically taking another chance on a “High Beta” player. I had seen this happen so many times over the last 20 years, I had actually prepared myself for it each year and had grown almost numb to it. Just like the same sick feeling I had in the pit of my stomach I had every year at the trade deadline as I saw all of our best talent traded away for basically nothing of significant value.
When the trade occurred, the terms being thrown around about A.J. were “Much Maligned”, “Losing his control”, and “Control too bad to win consistently anymore”. I had seen how he had pitched Game 2 of the 2009 World Series and his work early in his career and for a brief moment, I envisioned that maybe, just maybe, a change of scenery just might be able to put some of that “Lightning back in the bottle” so to speak.
Then I kept hearing that he was sometimes difficult with the media, and that at that time, his ego had long surpassed his talent. I would start having flashbacks to “Operation Shutdown” and Derrick Lee. I had visions of Raul Mondesi, Lyle Overbay, Joe Randa and recently Rod Barajas. I mean, there are a lot of names you could insert in the previous sentence, but you get the picture.
Then spring training 2012 starts, and of course, A.J. gets injured during bunting drills. My first reaction was and could only be, “here we go again”. Well, he worked hard and was back on the mound well before he was projected to. Not only was he pitching again, he was pitching well. Other than one bad early start, this man was dealing. Yes, he slowed down in the second half of the season, but still ended up finishing with the second most wins of his career.
My reason for writing this isn’t to talk about his stats though. I’d like to talk about the other thinks he brings to the table. The moment I really knew we really had acquired someone special was the “Hanley Ramirez” moment. For those of you who never saw it, it is a You Tube must
I knew at that moment the Pirates had a difference maker. You heard the stories about Burnett working with James McDonald and while the wheels came off for King James in the second half of 2012, the first half of the year, he made most of the hitters he faced looked silly. All of a sudden, A.J. not only had McDonald’s ear, the rest of the pitching staff was listening as well.
The thing is, A.J. didn’t just tell them what to do, he showed them. When other pitchers were showing up at 6:30 am to start their workouts, No. 34 was already out there running. It became a badge of honor to receive a t-shirt from A.J. as a player was to know that you were being seen as a worker and as someone who wanted to do and show you’re very best. It was obvious who the leader of the pitching staff was.
This year Burnett picked right up where he left off in 2012. In his first three starts, if A.J. had any type of run support, he would more than likely be undefeated at this point. That’s how baseball and something everyday life share. You put your best effort into each day, and hope at the end you come out a winner. As I try and watch every Pirates game, (The West Coast is getting really hard as much as I hate to admit it) I have noticed something different this year. Not only is it just the pitching staff gleaning information from Burnett, I’ve seen Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen and other various Pirate hitters trying to soak up as much information from him as they can.
There was talk earlier this year about Burnett’s possible retirement at the end of the year. I’d like to think this is the year and the Pirates play a full year of winning baseball and A.J. would hopefully want to stick around for a year or two to mentor Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillion. He has mentioned he would only like to play in Pittsburgh if he continues to play.
Burnett is fortunate enough to have already made over $100 million in his career. If he wanted to ride off into the sunset and spend time with his wife and family, could anyone really blame him? As it is, he will probably never have to pay for a drink in Pittsburgh. If he has another year like last year, he might even be able to land the Mayor gig in Pittsburgh.
Another option Burnett has and some may have thought this crazy as recently as a few years ago, is coaching.
I know, a good baseball player does not always make a good coach, but this guy truly has something to offer as far as baseball knowledge is concerned.
A.J., if you happen to see this, I’m not trying to take the next 20 years of your family and your fishing away. I would just love to see you continue to help continue to teach and develop young talent in Pittsburgh.
Hopefully, we have a while before we begin to worry about that.
At the minimum, hopefully a winning season.