Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Can the Pittsburgh Pirates Contend If A.J. Burnett Retires?

January 10, 2014
COMMENTARY | Two years ago, A.J. Burnett came to thePittsburgh Pirates, essentially given away by the New York Yankees after posting a 5.20 ERA with the team in his final two seasons. 
While the Pirates looked at Burnett as a good buy-low candidate, his strikeout totals indicating that he was a better pitcher than his ERA indicated, I doubt anyone in the Pirates organization could have expected to receive the production they did.
In 2012, with the Pirates threatening a playoff berth late into July, Burnett went 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA and 202 innings, leading the team in all categories and being the first Pirate pitcher since Zach Duke in 2009 to top the 200-inning mark. Covered in tattoos and barking orders to infielders, he was a steadying presence at the front of a rotation that didn't have much beyond James McDonald's hot start to the year.
And last year, Burnett was again a consistent presence, posting a 3.30 ERA in 191 innings, helping the Pirates weather a number of injuries while the team waited forFrancisco LirianoCharlie Morton, and Gerrit Cole to join the rotation. Quite frankly, without A.J. Burnett, the Pirates don't survive the first three months of the season and are not in a position to reach the postseason.
When the Pirates were bounced from the playoffs, Burnett was undecided, struggling to choose between spending more time with his family and drifting off to retirement, or returning to the Pirates for another year. (Though Burnett claimed to want to retire a Pirate, there were reports that his now-hometown Baltimore Orioles were interested in pursuing the starter.) Earlier this week, pitching coach Ray Searage said he didn't expect the pitcher to return, saying:
"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."
And while the Pirates and GM Neal Huntington were prepared to welcome the pitcher back for another year, the team was unable to offer Burnett a $14.1 million qualifying offer or even market price for the pitcher, histrue value too rich for their blood. Burnett also seemed to tire down the stretch, lasting only two innings in his postseason start against the Cardinals, surrendering seven runs, while pitching to a 4.04 ERA over the last two months of the season, so it's not a guarantee that his return is a balm for all the Pirates' rotation questions.
So how will the rotation shape up next season without Burnett? Unfortunately, for the Pirates, the free-agent market for starters has featured weak options asking for far too much money -- players like Scott Kazmir (one average season in his last five) collecting $11 million a season from the Athletics, and players like Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, and Ubaldo Jimenez just waiting for the fallout from the Masahiro Tanaka discussions. The only significant free-agent acquisition that team has made was signing another reclamation project in Edinson Volquez.
While the Pirates' pitching gurus of Jim Benedict and Ray Searage have been able to work miracles, reworking Charlie Morton's motion and turning Liriano back into a credible starter, Volquez has a 5.09 ERA with 4.8 BB/9 over his last three seasons, leading the league in BB/9 in that time frame. Interestingly enough, Francisco Liriano is second. It's possible that Volquez, who still has the ability to strike batters out when he can fin the zone, will be the pitcher the team needs. But the last time Volquez posted a league-average ERA was in 2008, a year when NBC's reboot of Knight Rider was on the fall schedule.
What the Pirates are relying on now, especially in the absence of Burnett, is health and a repeat of 2013. A tall order for any pitching staff, but especially one with as many questions marks as the Pirates have. Francisco Liriano had arguably the best season of his career, but didn't join the team until early May. Charlie Morton led all pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched in ground-ball rate, but made only 20 starts. Gerrit Cole started the year in AAA and took some time warming up to the league, posting a 3.22 ERA, watching that number drop by half a point over the final month of the season. Add in the hopeful return of Wandy Rodriguez from a forearm strain (3.59 ERA in 62.2 IP) and the Pirates' rotation could be one of the best in the league.
But there's not much depth. If Rodriguez's arm injury hasn't healed, Volquez remains ineffective, Liriano and Morton take a step backwards taken, or if Cole doesn't progress towards his future ace-hood, the Pirates are in trouble. Jameson Taillon is, at best, a midseason call-up, and Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton, or Phil Irwin are not long-term solutions, either. 
It's possible that the Pirates could be late players for a pitcher like Johan Santana, but that's the equivalent of buying a PowerBall ticket and then making a down payment on a retirement home. It's not the stuff that postseason plans are made of.
Last year, the Pirates were a talented team, but needed a lot of things to fall just right. The 2014 team has plenty of talent, too, but if A.J. Burnett doesn't return, they'll be crossing a lot of fingers and hoping nothing breaks.
Michael Clair writes Old Time Family Baseball and contributes to MLB Daily Dish and The Platoon Advantage. Follow him @clairbearattack.

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