Thursday, February 13, 2014

Pirates bet on depth, D to replace Burnett

By David Schoenfield
February 12, 2014

The Phillies have agreed to a one-year deal with A.J. Burnett, which seems like an odd destination if he wants to play for a postseason contender. 

I recently ranked the Phillies 29th in my pre-spring training power rankings. While this move may slide them up a few slots, I still don't see them finishing over .500. Of course, everything could break right and a top three of Cliff LeeCole Hamels and Burnett is a strong foundation for a rotation. 

But what does this mean for the Pirates, for whom Burnett was 26-21 over the past two seasons? The knee-jerk reaction could be: 

1. By refusing to increase payroll, Pittsburgh is risking taking a step backward after last year's success. 

2. Burnett led the team with 191 innings in 2013 (nobody else had more than 166), so now they have to replace those innings. 

3. There's no such thing as a bad one-year deal, so why weren't the Pirates more interested? 

The first one is pretty simple, I think. Pirates owner Bob Nutting has been accused in the past of being too cheap, and it's difficult to argue against that label after the team’s nondescript offseason. In September,Nutting spoke with the Pittsburgh Business Times about the 2014 payroll, saying, "It is too early to pick a specific number. But my expectation is, just as we have each of the last several years, that we’re going to be able to push that number upward. I would anticipate next year to be no different. Again, there will always be limitations. But continuing to move forward, I believe, gives us room inside of the payroll we have to put a very competitive club on the field. The goal has always been not to create a short-term spike but create a talent flow into the organization that makes possible a sustainable level of success." 

The Pirates' payroll in 2013 was an estimated $79 million, according to the PBT (about $66 million on Opening Day). Baseball Reference projects a Pirates payroll of $70 million; Cot's Baseball Contracts estimates $66 million. So despite an increase in ticket prices, a likely jump in attendance and a $25 million increase in national TV money, the Pirates' payroll will apparently remain stagnant, even allowing for in-season trades. 

I do believe the innings issue is the biggest obstacle in replacing Burnett. Pirates starters ranked 24th in the majors in innings in 2013 -- 78 fewer than the Reds, 65 fewer than the Braves and 60 fewer than the Cardinals. That may not seem like a lot, but that's basically the workload of one full-time reliever, so it's not insignificant either. The Pittsburgh bullpen was outstanding last season. Without Burnett, it might have to shoulder a similar or even heavier burden, even accounting for more innings from Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole

That said, Baseball Reference valued Burnett at only 1.7 WAR last year. Why so low? A few things. Burnett's park factor favored pitchers, not just PNC Park but the road parks he pitched in. The lineups he faced averaged 4.14 runs per nine innings; Burnett allowed 3.72 runs per nine innings, about what an average pitcher would be expected to allow against those lineups. Finally, Pittsburgh's defense was very good. So while Burnett's 3.30 ERA looks impressive, he was really about average. (To be fair, FanGraphs' method of evaluating pitchers liked Burnett a lot more at 4.0 WAR, valuing the fact that he struck out 209 batters in 191 innings.) 

We don't know what the Pirates' internal evaluation of Burnett was, but I'm guessing they believe they can replace Burnett's production, in part because they believe their defense will be outstanding again. (With Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte in particular, it should be very good at least.) Still, there's some risk as they are counting on Liriano to repeat his strong year; Cole to ramp up his innings as a sophomore; Charlie Morton, who has pitched more than 116 innings only once in the major leagues, to be the No. 3 starter;Wandy Rodriguez to bounce back from his ailments; and Jeff Locke or Edinson Volquez to produce in the fifth spot. They also have rookie Jameson Taillon, who could be ready at some point. 

So I can see why the Pirates ultimately punted on Burnett, believing in their depth and defense and maintaining payroll flexibility to make a move during the season. I still believe the Pirates are ripe for a decline, but I would have said that even if Burnett had re-signed with them.

Photo: AP

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