First Pitch: A.J. Burnett and the Rising Cost of Pitchers

A.J. Burnett
What kind of money is A.J. Burnett worth this off-season? (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Earlier this week the Pittsburgh Pirates declined to give A.J. Burnett a qualifying offer of $14.1 M. The offer would have brought Burnett back if he would have accepted it, and would have brought the Pirates a draft pick if he would have signed elsewhere. There have been some predictions saying that Burnett would only cost $12-13 M.

Burnett has said he will either retire to play for the Pirates. So even without the qualifying offer, the thought would be that Burnett returning to the Pirates seems likely. The only thing you have to wonder is how the recent free agent contracts and rumors might impact the price.

The off-season has already seen Tim Lincecum sign a two-year, $35 M deal. Now, Ken Rosenthal reports that Ervin Santana is looking for five years and $100 M, while Ricky Nolasco is looking for five years and $80 M. They probably won’t get $16-20 M. MLBTR pointed out that Santana is being predicted for $15 M per year, while Nolasco is being predicted for $13 M per year. Here are the xFIP numbers for those players from the 2013 season.

A.J. Burnett: 2.92

Tim Lincecum: 3.56

Ricky Nolasco: 3.58

Ervin Santana: 3.69

The popular saying after Lincecum was signed was “If Tim Lincecum can get $17 M per year, then think about what (insert pitcher) can get”. I’m not so sure that Lincecum is going to be setting the market. If Nolasco and Santana are getting $13-15 M per year, then Lincecum’s deal will just look like a really bad contract. But what about Burnett? He had much better numbers, and that was also true last year. In the last two seasons, Burnett ranks 9th out of 74 qualified pitchers with a 3.17 xFIP. Lincecum, Nolasco, and Santana are all in the 3.68-4.05 range during that time.

Burnett has clearly been the best pitcher of the group, but he’s also several years older than the other pitchers, with worries about when his numbers might start to fade. However, on a one year deal, I think Burnett could easily get $13-15 M. In fact, if he gets that amount, and Nolasco/Santana are in that range, that would be a steal for Burnett’s services.

The Pirates didn’t offer the $14.1 M, and all of the predictions have him at $12-13 M, which would be a huge value for the quality pitcher that Burnett has been the last two seasons. They can still offer something in the $14 M range if that’s what it takes.

My feeling with Burnett is that if he does return, he will return on a one year deal. I don’t think you go from considering retirement to a multi-year deal. I also think that the Pirates could get a bit of a discount. Burnett has made over $120 M in his career. If the Pirates are offering $12-13 M, and Burnett could get $15 M from another team, I don’t think he will leave Pittsburgh for that extra $2-3 M. Burnett is one of the leaders of the team, and he’s adored by the fans. He’s also received his big payday. I don’t think he would give up his situation in Pittsburgh just to go get top dollar at this point in his career.

At the start of the off-season, the Tim Lincecum deal was alarming. All of the talk since has some more reasonable prices for pitchers. Those reasonable prices make me think that the qualifying offer would have represented the top range of what Burnett could earn next year. But for the reasons stated above, I still wouldn’t be surprised if the Pirates got him for a bit of a discount. And if Burnett continues doing what he has been doing the previous two seasons, that discount would look like a massive value in 2014.

Links and Notes

**Pre-Order the 2014 Prospect Guide

**Prospect Rewind: Looking at Tyler Glasnow’s Rapid Progression

**Winter Leagues: Matt Hague Drives In Three Runs

**AFL: Two Hits For Alex Dickerson in Loss

  • I dream of a day where the Pirates can trade one of their blocked prospects for another team’s blocked prospect. I brought this up once to Tim regarding Meadows for a corner infielder one day down the road. He said by the time Meadows came up he would most likely be replacing someone and not a one for one deal………………….he ruined my day with that reply.

    • d: We are poverty stricken at 1B throughout the entire system, but we have a pontoon boat full of high quality OF’s. One option is a trade, but instead of a trade of prospects, can we lose anything by trying to work with some of these LH hitting outfielders and see if they have any possible value at 1B? There are only 3 OF positions and after Polanco makes the move to PNC, we could be done for 5 or 6 years – guys like Josh Bell and Austin Meadows are excellent athletes – do they have the hands and feet to make the adjustment? As I stated above, there are a few young 1B in other orgs who are blocked by young guys already in the majors with long term contracts – there may be others.

  • IMO, A.J. lives in Baltimore, if Baltimore shows up with 17 or 18mil, he might change his mind about only playing in Pitt. He does have help in making up his decision, wifey and an agent, they could be whispering in his ear. I know most wives are not going to go for their husbands turning down 2-4mil just to be loyal, when he might be able to play in their back yard and be home at least 84-85 games a year (Washington is home).

    • The only way I see AJ going to Baltimore is if he convinces himself he has to redeem himself in the AL East before hanging it up. I don’t get the feeling at this point that he’s all about the money. The “leadership/mentor” thing seems to be a hot button – would he have that in Baltimore? Does he feel Baltimore is really a player for a WS? Does he think he can pitch in Fenway and Yankee Stadium again and be successful?

      There’s no way to get in his head for sure, but based on appearances I think you take him at his word – unless the Bucs insult him with a lowball offer.

    • I would not be surprised if AJ and NH had a wink-wink understanding that there are no other teams he would go to except B’more and possibly Washington. If I recall correctly, his wife also has a fear of flying – when he went to Toronto his contract called for a limo for so many round trips between Toronto and B’more. I was hoping we might know something before the MLB Meetings in December – if he is onboard for 2014, that would be a great opportunity to shop Liriano.

      In another thread I pitched the name of a kid in the Cubs org. My suggestion is to re-sign Justin Morneau and sign one or two young LH hitting first basemen with good gloves and bats. The kid I suggested was Dan Vogelbach, 20, who played 1B at Lo A most of the year and then finished up in Hi A. Let me add another from the Nationals org and that is Matt Skole, 24, who is a big LH 1B/3B. I try to pick kids who are blocked – Vogelbach cannot get around Rizzo and he cannot play the OF. Skole is stuck at 1B and 3B. Ryan Zimmerman is at 3B, but is signed through 2019 and will probably move across the diamond to 1B when Adam LaRoche leaves after 2014. Anthony Rendon will move to 3B, and that leaves Skole out in the cold. He was the Nats Minor League Player of the Year in 2012 and was injured all year in 2013 when his elbow was twisted in a collision at 1B in the second game of the year at AA.

    • I stand by my original comment – you lose nothing and gain a lot if you make the offer – if the Pirates are jerking him around for a possible 2 million savings they are being the Pirates of old. Hopefully they have had discussions with his people that led to this.

  • Tim, I hope I am wrong but I disagree with your premise. We always want to believe that a player will stay here for a discount because they like the situation. The reality is if a player is offered a couple of million more dollars that is just to much money to walk away from. In AJs case he will likely be offered in the range of 30 million over two years) or 15-17 over one from another club (I see the Orioles being that club). None of us would turn down that type of money if all it took was for us to live in another city for a couple of years. You could always come back to the burgh if you loved it and spend the rest of your life there. Its easy to think that since someone is already super rich that money would no longer be a consideration but the fact is its always a consideration. I have seen it with athletes everywhere saying how much they love a city only to go to the highest bidder and a bad situation. Now you have more insight with AJ but I just get the feeling at the end of the day he leaves and goes for the money. History would suggest he has done that his entire career so why would that change now.

  • I thought – and still think – that unless there was conversation we do not know about that AJ deserved a qualifying offer.

    Yes saving $2 million is nice – but Burnett is a proud man and I could see him taking this as a lack of respect.

    Let’s hope he does not sign with the Cards or Reds for $10M

    • He’s proud, but he’s not vindictive.

      In my opinion, one of the biggest problems with giving a qualifying offer is that he might not make a decision until January. In the mean time, if given a QO, you have to assume he’s taking $14.1M of your budget (if the budget is around $85M, that’s about 1/6 of the total, and 65% of the available). Then what if he does retire? Everybody that you could have gotten will have signed elsewhere. Without the QO, the Pirates have the flexibility to go after some other FAs. If they sign some expensive names, then you go to Burnett and say we can give you $10M, and he can make his decision. If the big FAs are too expensive so you fill holes with the store brands, you can make a more attractive offer to AJ like $16M. I agree that money probably won’t weigh in as heavily in this decision as you would normally see though. But I do wonder how much the team’s makeup will play into his decision too. I would imagine that it would be much more attractive to come back to a team that filled its holes from the previous season, than basically the same one that struggled to score runs all season.

      • emjay and Steven,I think both of you are on the right track. As for guys like Nolasco and Santana,my best wishes,wherever they end up. Santana’s best options are the Angels and the Mariners,and the he already ha been in Anaheim. Garza is the kind pitcher who you absolutely do not know what you are going to get from him. Myself,even though he is way up there in age,a guy like Bronson Arroyo is much more acceptable,you know he will be out there every 5th day battling and giving you innings.

      • Stephen, i think you bring up factors that haven’t been talked about.

        I hope NH mentions things like the “if he drags the retirement decision out after being given a QO, you’re screwed” thing and doesnt just tiptoe around AJ questions when he goes on the David Todd Radio Show tonight.

        While AJ is totally worth 14.1 x 1 year in my and most peoples’ opinions, especially with the Santana and Nolasco prices being discussed, they can’t afford to sit out on the bargain FA SPs waiting for AJ to accept.

        Gotta manage dat risk.

      • I don’t see how it would tie up their budget. Players only have a week to decide on the QO. So if he turned down the QO (which he would) they could still pursue other avenues.

        • Okay, now I don’t see why they wouldn’t make a QO then. I didn’t know they only had 7 days to accept or decline. That explains why nobody else was talking about that. Like you said, he almost certainly declines the offer which means you’re right back in the same situation personnel and budget wise, but you get a compensation pick if he does go elsewhere.

          I have to assume AJ had a discussion with NH that was the cause of this decision. And if that’s the case, we’re not going to be told what was said in a private meeting. If AJ didn’t want to feel rushed which a QO would do, then not offering the QO is actually a sign of goodwill and not at all a slight like many are making it out to be. But this is all just speculation and could be totally wrong. So with that, I’m done speculating until a decision is made either way, and just hope that everything that happened so far was a product of an honest and professional conversation behind closed doors.

  • All the more reason to hang on to pitching instead of trading it off for any flavor of the week. I’m of the opinion that Cole, Taillion, Glasnow and any other pitching prospect with the ceiling of an ace should not be traded. The price of pitching in free agency has gone insane. I wouldn’t touch Santana or Nolasco at those prices. Lincecum at 17.5 per is just as insane with where he currently is.

    • KW: Agree wholeheartedly, but agents are paid to negotiate for the max the market will bear, and when you see contracts like the one given to Tim Lincecum, it makes you scratch your head. How about the contract given to Edwin Jackson by the Cubs last year – AN $8 MIL Bonus, and then $11 mil per year for 4 years. His ERA the year before that contract was 4.03, and his number of innings pitched dropped in each of the 4 preceding years from 214, 209, 199, and then to 189. So, is it any wonder he finished 2013 with an 8-18 record and a 4.98 ERA and only 175 innings pitched? And guess what? He is going to be the poster child for any pitcher who was average or above average in 2013. Remember when the Brewers signed a washed up Jeff Suppan for 4 years and $48 mil? As long as there are GM’s trying to take short cuts, you will have stupidity like that, and, unfortunately, there are GM’s lining up already for Nolasco and Santana regardless of price. The Pirates were like that for years and we now look comfortable now and in the future as long as we do not get nuts.

      I would like the leadership of a guy like Burnett, and also because with him for 2013, the Pirates could make a big score on Francisco Liriano. The Pirates have 8 possible SP’s for 2014 in Burnett, Liriano, Cole, Morton, Locke, Rodriguez, Cumpton, and Gomez, with guys like Jameson Taillon, Kyle McPherson, and Nick Kingham close behind. Will the light go on between the ears of Andy Oliver in 2014? Will we still have Kris Johnson?