Since the end of last season, A.J. Burnett maintained that he would either return to the Pirates, or retire. This week, he announced he still wants to pitch in the major leagues, but that he was open to where he’ll pitch.
“It was a possibility for which we were always prepared,” says Pirates general manager Neal Huntington. “We’ll see how it plays out, but we hope (Francisco) Liriano, (Gerrit) Cole, (Charlie) Morton, (Jeff) Locke and Wandy (Rodriguez) will stay healthy.” With the possibility that Jameson Taillon and Nick Kingham are ready by mid-season to contribute in the manner Cole helped pitch the Pirates into the playoffs in 2013.
A half-dozen different general managers have offered the opinion that other than Masahiro Tanaka, A.J. Burnett is the best free agent pitcher on this off-season’s market. OK, he’s 37, but his 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings was the best in the National League, his strikeout percentage was actually better than Clayton Kershaw, his groundball ratio was second best in baseball, he carries no draft pick compensation and everyone figured he was in for a one year deal. He was throwing 93.7 with his four-seamer, 93.9 with his two-seamer in September and October…
Well, one day after Burnett hit the market, at least 15 teams had checked in, and he and his agent were at least willing to listen to a two year offer. Ah, the price of pitching.
As has been much-publicized, A.J. and his wife Karen live outside Baltimore, and the Orioles have made it clear they want in. So have the Rays. But unlike his two previous forays into the market, Burnett has not indicted to agent Darek Braunecker where he definitely wants to go, which he did when he decided he wanted to pitch for the Blue Jays and Yankees in the past. There’s a strong feeling the Phillies will jump in, putting him in a rotation with friend, Braunecker client and fellow Arkansas native Cliff Lee, as well as Cole Hamels. Being from Arkansas, Burnett will be willing to at least listen on the Rangers. He loves Pittsburgh, but now the price has to be right, and Arizona will certainly come knocking. He always really liked Toronto, which needs a front-of-the-rotation starter, and Alex Anthopoulos has carefully monitored the free agent market prices of Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez.
Will the Orioles invest what it will take to sign Burnett? Some think so, others doubt it, but A.J. would be invaluable to the development of Kevin Gausman and their other young pitchers. Will the Phillies make the investment, which might make their rotation good enough to compete for the post-season? Will Texas jump in, and would Burnett be interested?
Burnett may be 37 years old and once struggled in New York—as much with Jorge Posada as the shadow of The Monuments—but he’s a rare pitching horse with an arsenal that combines a power sinker and big swing-and-miss capabilities. Think of Camden Yards as a home run park, think of the Orioles’ defense…it is their Fanfest Weekend, and with one of the best cores of positional players, it is something to dream on.