Monday Morning Mop-up Duty: the price of keeping A.J. Burnett


PNC PARK – Clint Hurdle said A.J. Burnett‘s complete game victory Sunday was the best game Burnett has pitched all season. No argument here. The one quibble you could have with Burnett this season is efficiency and he was efficient Sunday.


Burnett has only five wins, but he’s having perhaps the best season of his career. Burnett and Francisco Liriano are each pitching like aces, and Hurdle could have an interesting decision to make about who he wants as his No. 1 starter this postseason. IF there’s a postseason.


Here’s the other interesting future-related question regarding Burnett: could he be the Opening Day starter in 2014? Will he stick around?


The Pirates are a small-market team. The free agent pitching market is thin. Those factors seem to scream out that there’s no chance Burnett remains with the Pirates. But there are a couple things working in the Pirates’ factor …


Will A.J. Burnett be a Pirates in April of 2014? 


One factor is Burnett  is a baseball graybeard. He is in his late 30s. It’s unlikely any team gives him a long-term deal. The Pirates would probably only be in the market for a one- or perhaps two-year deal. The Pirates should only be in the market for short-term deals involving free agent pitchers.


The other factor is Burnett likes pitching in Pittsburgh. And who wouldn’t? It’s a great pitcher’s park, it’s the easier, no-DH league for pitcher, and it’s far from the glare of the New York media microscope. Burnett told our own Rob Biertempfel in March he was considering two options this offseason: retirement or re-upping with the Pirates.


“If I was to keep playing, I wouldn’t want it to be anywhere else but Pittsburgh. My wife and I talk about it now and then. But it’s something I’ve got to put on the back burner. I’m just going to concentrate on this season, one start at a time.”


We’ll see. Dollars and years can change things. But I wouldn’t rule out Burnett staying around.


Burnett is heading for another 3.0 Wins Above Replacement season, which puts his market value at $15 million per season, maybe a shade under. Would he resign for two years and $28 million? Would the Pirates offer it? The season’s 12th sellout yesterday won’t hurt the cause. Bob Nutting is selling more tickets.


Stay tuned.



9. I wondered aloud on Twitter a couple weeks ago whether any pitcher had evolved less than Burnett over the last decade.


This isn’t an insult as his performance has been good enough to earn him nearly $100 million in his career. But throughout his career he’s been a two-pitch, high-strikeout, high-walk, highly inefficient pitcher. No changes, really. No changes at all. With more adjustments perhaps he could have been better. But Burnett has made one subtle but important since becoming a Pirate: he’s become more of a ground-ball pitcher. This has helped him pitch deeper into games, including yesterday’s complete game.


Burnett has a career-high K rate (9.8) combined with the second best groundball rate of his career (56.7) this season. That’s a borderline ace, folks.


8. Of course if Burnett retires or signs elsewhere, there might be another undervalued former Yankee on the free agent market that could really benefit by leaving the bandbox that is New Yankee Stadium for pitcher’s heaven PNC Park and the no-DH National League. Thy name is Phil Hughes. It’s a just a thought, but the former elite prospect is a guy who could really see his performance jump with a chance of scenery.


7. Maybe the Marlins didn’t trade Giancarlo Stanton for an internal reason: they could be pretty good, pretty fast.


The Marlins are 27-23 over their last 50 games and have two of the game’s most valuable assets in Stanton and Jose Fernandez plus a collection of interesting young talent in the pipe-line, some that is arriving like Christian Yelich, who seems to square up every pitch. They will not be an easy out this week at PNC Park, and I’d take the Marlins’ talent over the Phillies and Mets going forward in the East.


6. Russell Martin hit a three-run homer Sunday, looking like his knee was very much OK. It’s not 100 percent. It will not be 100 percent the rest of the way. But he’s proving he can play with it.


Consider Martin and Francisco Liriano – you, know, Liriano the Cy Young Contender – are going to cost the Pirates $11 million combined this season but they’ve already produced a combined $25 million value. (5 wins above replacment x $5 million per WAR)


5. What people forget is Liriano’s stuff was very good in the second half of last year, when he averaged 10.5 Ks per nine innings. It shocked me there was so little interest in a lefty, even if enigmatic, with that arm. What’s been the difference maker besides going to a pitcher-friendly league and park, is his revamped release point. He’s throwing more over the top now, which is allowing him to throw more first-pitch strikes, which allows him to get into positions to use his hammer breaking stuff.


4.  Whether Gerrit Cole has a start to two skipped or not, it appears he will be on the postseason roster if the Pirates advance. And I’d be shocked if he’s not a starter in the playoffs if the Pirates make it beyond the play-in game.


Said GM Neal Huntington:  “If we have four starter better than Gerrit Cole we are in very good shape.”


The Pirates don’t have four starter better than Cole. They have two: Burnett and Liriano.


3. Huntington has received very encouraging reports on his first-round picks, particularly catcher Reese McGuire. Everyone knew McGuire was an elite defensive prospect, but his approach at the plate and his bat are more advanced than some expected. He’s hitting .368 in his first 24 pro games. Austin Meadows is hitting .291 with two home runs. It has a chance to go down as one of the team’s better first rounds.


2. Major League Baseball and players benefited from moving the draft signing deadline up a month: now young players like McGuire and Meadows are getting exposure to pro ball right after being drafted rather than waiting until the middle of August to sign and lose a half year of experience. The game would benefit by moving the trade deadline back with the extra wild card to better separate the buyers and sellers.


1. Huntington said there are some trade conversations at the deadline that are “finite” and some that could continue into the offseason.




Don’t stop believing, folks.



This is how good Jose Fernandez is.



Gerrit Cole gets to face him again at PNC Park on Thursday afternoon. Lucky, him, right?


I really like Cole. But if redrafting the 2011 draft, I’m picking Fernandez No. 1 overall. Love this kid.



“I don’t what to make it seem like every (club) club was doing it but it wasn’t just one. There were a couple, in gamesmanship, that were reminding us how it important it is to this city to win and how long it had been. It had no impact whatsoever if not turning us against them a little bit.” –  Huntington



Liriano is only the third Pirates since 1912 to win 12 or more games with an ERA under 2.25 in his first 16 starts of a season, joining Rip Sewell (12-2, 2.22 ERA in 1943) and Dock Ellis (12-3, 2.24 in 1971), according to Elias.



Mumford and Sons are coming to Pittsburgh on August 29th. If you don’t like Mumford and Sons, there’s something wrong with you.


- TS