As Pittsburgh Pirates mini-camp continues in Bradenton, Fla., and we creep within a few weeks of the start of Spring Training, it’s only natural to start projecting the Bucs’ Opening Day roster.
On the pitching side of things, with Edinson Volquez signed to a free-agent contract and Wandy Rodriguez progressing in his elbow rehabilitation, it appears the starting rotation will consist of Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton and Francisco Liriano, with Jeff Locke competing with Rodriguez and Volquez for the remaining two spots.
There was once a thought that A.J. Burnett would return for his third season in Pittsburgh, helping the Pirates bridge the gap until potential ace-in-waiting Jameson Taillon arrives from the minors. However, that no longer seems to be the case.
In an interview Thursday morning on 93.7 The Fan, Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage indicated that Burnett was no longer a tangible part of the team’s plans for the new season. In fact, Searage said he’s expecting Burnett to retire from baseball at the age of 37:
I’ve got to prepare the pitching with no A.J., so that’s the route I’m going right now. If he does come back, alright. But right now, I’m leaning that way, where he’s going to retire.
This doesn’t come as a surprise, since there’s been little news on Burnett’s leanings since the season ended. Burnett reportedly told the Pirates he would either return to Pittsburgh or call it quits after 15 years in the big leagues.
Burnett has yet to make an announcement one way or another, so it’s only natural for the Bucs to assume No. 34 won’t be taking the mound next month at Pirate City. Since arriving in Pittsburgh via trade from the Yankees in February 2012, the Arkansas native has posted a 3.41 ERA in 61 starts, equating to about four Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
In addition to seeing his peripheral metrics (strikeouts, walks, ground-ball rate) improve across the board over the past two years, Burnett served as a mentor for many of the young Pirates pitchers. Although Burnett was upset about getting passed over for his scheduled Game 5 start in last year’s NL Division Series, Bucs manager Clint Hurdle has repeatedly said there are no lingering issues and that the team would love to have the fiery right-hander back for 2014.
As of now, the Pirates are moving on as if that won’t happen.
UPDATE (1:30 p.m.) - Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has chimed in on the matter, injecting a combination of hope and realism in a conversation with MLB.com Bucs beat man Tom Singer:
GM Huntington, on Burnett: #Pirates “remain very hopeful he is going to return to pitch for PGH, but continue to operate as if he’s not.”
— Tom Singer (@Tom_Singer) January 9, 2014