Oct 3, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett (34) throws to a St. Louis Cardinals batter during the first inning in game one of the National League divisional series playoff baseball game at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Pirates should let free-agent pitcher A.J. Burnett walk

Allan James Burnett has done his job for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Now it’s time to let him go.

Burnett, now 36, has exceeded all reasonable expectations since arriving via trade from the New York Yankees prior to the 2012 season. With his former club paying $20 million of the $33 million he was owed over the past two years, Burnett has delivered full value to the Pirates, serving as a leader on the pitcher’s mound and in the clubhouse.

Leaving the intangibles out of it, the 6-foot-4 right-hander has posted two of the best seasons of his career with Pittsburgh. After throwing 202 innings with a 3.51 ERA in 2012, Burnett matched lifetime lows in ERA (3.30) and home runs allowed per nine (0.5) in 2013, while setting a new personal best in strikeouts per nine (9.8).

Burnett was undoubtedly excellent this summer, even though a midseason leg injury robbed him of a couple starts. Overall, according to Baseball-Reference.com, A.J. has been worth 3.9 wins above replacement as a Pirate. That’s not star-level production, but it’s been enough to make him one of the Bucs’ most valuable players as they rose from 72 wins in 2011 to 94 and a playoff berth in 2013.

But circumstances are such that it will be difficult for Pittsburgh to keep Burnett any longer. For starters, the Pirates won’t have another team to help them pay for A.J. should they decide to retain him. He likely won’t command $16.5 million per year in the future, but it wouldn’t be unbelievable if a team offers him something close this winter.

Furthermore, Burnett’s personality – while often endearing to fans and media members – makes him more trouble than he’s worth at times. Having a competitor like Burnett is an asset, but that intensity can also create distractions.

Just looking back to the last two months of the season, the Arkansas native visibly angered manager Clint Hurdle by derisively waving off the bullpen, got into an obvious spat with shortstop Clint Barmes over his positioning, tweeted out criticism for empty seats at PNC Park and – lastly – insisted on throwing a side session on the afternoon of NLDS Game 5, making him unavailable to relieve rookie Gerrit Cole, who had gotten the start ahead of Burnett.

Each of those situations can be shrugged off if isolated, but together they illustrate the needless stress Burnett put on the Bucs because his passion boiled over. A.J. also mentioned to the media in September that he was considering retirement after the season, one more thing that might’ve been better kept to himself until the playoffs were over.

Additionally, following the Barmes flap, Burnett made a scene in the clubhouse when asked about the Pirates’ aggressive defensive shifts, saying he “hated them.” Nevermind that those shifts had helped Burnett and the rest of the Pittsburgh pitching staff post great results on balls in play and made the Bucs one of MLB’s stingiest teams.

All of the ancillary things Burnett brings upon himself and the team could be more easily ignored if he was a superstar, but he is not. At 36, Burnett will likely start to trend downward in the near future, so it appears now is the appropriate time for the Pirates to say goodbye to No. 34.

He’s been a symbol of the Pirates’ return to competitive relevance, but everyone has a shelf life, no matter how integral. The Bucs need to resist sentimentality as they go about the business of maintaining their level of success, and letting Burnett walk would fit into the category of a difficult, yet prudent move.

Tags: A.J. Burnett Pittsburgh Pirates

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