Signing A.J. Burnett Is Latest Example of Pittsburgh Pirates’ Winning Method


Sep 27, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher A.J. Burnett (34) throws a pitch during the second inning against the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

With Major League Baseball’s economic system remaining the most inequitable of the four major North American professional leagues, this is the way the Pittsburgh Pirates must go about their business.

To their credit, it’s been working rather well lately.

Friday’s news that the Pirates had signed free-agent starting pitcher A.J. Burnett to a one-year, $8.5-million contract doubles down on the trade acquisition of Francisco Cervelli earlier in the week. Call it frugal, call it efficient, call it cheap if you must, but Pittsburgh is in a financial position that dictates bargain hunting.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington must have clipped his coupons this week, because while there are performance risks in the additions of Burnett and Cervelli, the cost of that pair is minimal by modern MLB standards. With Cervelli due to make around a million next year and Burnett returning at roughly half the price he was demanding last winter, it’s easy to like the past few days for the Bucs.

My feeling is generally positive, primarily because of the cost-benefit analysis. In most cases, giving up a relief pitcher for a useful position player is something a GM should do without much deliberation. Can Justin Wilson be a late-inning weapon somewhere down the line? Sure, but his control problems made him a question mark, especially since mound whisperer Ray Searage couldn’t figure him out.

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The bet on Cervelli is that he will thrive with an opportunity to start, which he certainly didn’t have in New York behind Brian McCann and his enormous contract. Speaking of big money, Russell Martin is reportedly seeking a McCann-like deal this offseason, so it’s time for the Pirates to solidify their other options behind the plate.

As far as Burnett goes, he will be 38 next season, which he has said will be his last. After seeing the eastern side of Pennsylvania last summer, A.J. apparently realized the value of a rising franchise like the Pirates. The fiery right-hander could’ve pitched another year for the sagging Phillies at $12 million, but he took 50 percent less to head back west.

Burnett remains a strikeout/groundball pitcher, albeit a slightly less effective one than he was when he left. The Pirates are wagering that their aggressive defensive shifts and another year with Searage will be enough to make him a dependable middle-of-the-rotation arm.

At $8.5 million, if Burnett can be a No. 3 or 4 starter in 2015, that would be extremely cost effective. Add at least one more starting pitcher via free agency and the Pirates’ rotation will be looking stronger than it did on Opening Day this year.

Make no mistake: the Bucs should spend more this winter than they did last offseason. Since Martin is likely gone and ticket revenues continued to climb in 2014, they should be able to do so.

At the same time, for as long as baseball avoids the salary-cap discussion, the Pirates will have to keep winning on the margins. As this week showed, they’ve gotten pretty good at that over the years.