Here are the numbers for two pitchers. One of these pitchers is seen as a potential mid-season upgrade for the Pirates, and a guy who could help them for a playoff run. The other pitcher is a guy who is currently in the Pirates’ rotation, and who a lot of fans would have as the top candidate to be moved to the bullpen or traded away.
Player A: 3.92 ERA / 4.04 xFIP
Player B: 4.07 ERA / 4.23 xFIP
You can tell by the title that one of these is going to be A.J. Burnett. He’s actually Player A. The other player? Edinson Volquez. And the difference between the two? If Volquez had two fewer earned runs, he’d have a better ERA this season than Burnett. The advanced metrics show that the two aren’t far off with their performances this year.
There has been some talk about the Pirates possibly being interested in bringing back Burnett in a trade. Considering his performance this year, that’s a move that wouldn’t make sense.
Here are some other numbers. These are the Pirates’ starters, ranked by xFIP, with Burnett included (updated with Vance Worley’s start tonight).
1. Francisco Liriano – 3.49
2. Jeff Locke – 3.55
3. Gerrit Cole – 3.60
4. Charlie Morton – 3.78
5. Vance Worley – 3.89
6. Brandon Cumpton – 3.93
7. A.J. Burnett – 4.07
8. Edinson Volquez – 4.23
At the moment, Burnett would be the seventh best option for the Pirates. There are some disclaimers here. We’re dealing with a small sample size for Worley, and we don’t really know what he can do over the long-run. So far he has looked good, but it has only been four starts. Locke is also dealing with a small sample size, although bigger than Worley, and his stuff backs up the stats. Also, Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano haven’t been putting up results as good as their advanced metrics. But realistically, Burnett isn’t replacing those guys.
It makes sense why Burnett would be appealing. He has been a good pitcher in his career. He posted great numbers with the Pirates. But that’s what he did in the past. It’s not what he could do for the Pirates now. Right now, Burnett is no better than the fifth or sixth best options in Pittsburgh. Add to that the fact that he’s owed about $8 M the rest of the year, and will be owed at least $7.5 M next year, and it sounds like an expensive way to get slightly better production than what Volquez is putting up. I haven’t even considered what he could cost in prospects.
I believe that the reason Burnett is struggling this year is due to a hernia injury. That’s a valid reason for his issues. The problem is that he doesn’t plan to have surgery until the off-season. Right now his strikeout rate is way down, his walks are up, and his ground ball rate is down. He’s not the pitcher he was the last two seasons. And if it’s because of that injury, then you shouldn’t expect him to return to being that pitcher.
Burnett is a 37-year-old pitcher who is currently hurt, has poor numbers, will probably need surgery in the off-season, and hasn’t been much better than the current internal options. He’s owed at least $15.5 M, and would also come with a cost in prospects.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Pirates to consider a rotation upgrade. But right now, Burnett is not an upgrade. The A.J. Burnett that was in Pittsburgh the last two years would have been an upgrade to this current staff. Unfortunately, that A.J. Burnett isn’t around this year.
Links and Notes
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.