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Burnett’s back … or is he?

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SOUTH HILLS – As we reported earlier today, A.J. Burnett will return to pitch in 2014. The Pirates and baseball world have been waiting on that news for nearly four months.

The other part of the story is unresolved: where will he pitch?

This is what I was told by a source close to Burnett:

“He’s made the decision he is going to play,” said the source, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I suspect he is going to open himself up to the market.”

That doesn’t sound promising for the Pirates, who are on record saying they will not pay market rate for a top-of-the-rotation pitcher.

Burnett was a 4-win pitcher last season, which is worth at least $20 million. Even if you factor in some regression in 2014 – he is 37 – Burnett figures to be a 3-win performer, worth around $15 million.

The Pirates declined to extend Burnett a $14.1 qualifying offer  in November, which many analysts thought was surprising at time for a number of reasons:

*The QO was below his market value.

*If Burnett should elect to sign elsewhere, the Pirates would receive draft-pick compensation, which I think is actually the idea scenario for a 37-year-old pitcher.

*It was extremely unlikely Burnett signed the QO. It took Burnett nearly four months to decide to return and every free agent tagged with a QO declined the qualifying offer.

*The QO would also cut down on potential suitors.

All those reasons are why many thought the Pirates would do well to extend the QO. (Disclaimer: it’s possible the Pirates don’t want Burnett back). But Pirates GM Neal Huntington told me at the winter meetings he was uncomfortable potentially committing 18-20 percent of payroll on one player. The qualifying offer represents 19 percent of the Pirates’ current projected Opening Day payroll ($75 million). Huntington was with Cleveland in the early 2000s/late 1990s when the Indians conducted studies on the optimum allocation of payroll distribution. It was found teams that had committed 18 percent or more to one player had never won a World Series.

Of course 18 percent of payroll for the Pirates and 18 percent for many other teams – probably about 22-25 other teams – result in much different dollar totals. The real issue is total payroll – which has nothing to do with Huntington. The public expectation is the Pirates’ payroll would be well north of $80 million entering Opening Day after drawing 2.3 million fans in 2013 and with new national TV dollars flowing into owners’ coffers.

The Pirates are asking a pitcher, coming off an excellent season when he led the NL in groundball and strikeout rates, to return for a significant discount. Players rarely do discounts.  And in only offering a discount, and not nearer market value, the Pirates might have missed an opportunity.

The Pirates have said the best move they could make this offseason is retaining Burnett. With pitching starved teams like  Baltimore and Philadelphia interested and near his offseason home of Maryland, with Texas losing Derek Holland for half the season, retaining Burnett seems unlikely.

-TS

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