A.J. Burnett walked off the mound 104 times as a New York Yankee, almost never to a smothering amount of applause. His stint as a Yankee can be described as a trainwreck, one that turned one of the most talented pitchers in baseball into a headcase that was cussing after games because of pressure from the media and criticizing his manager as self-doubt built up inside of him. No matter what he tried, the opposition always seemed to have four runs on the board as Joe Girardi emerged from the dugout to get Burnett out of the game. The slow walk from the mound to the clubhouse was lonely for Burnett as the unforgiving New York crowd booed him off the field.
The final time Burnett walked off the mound as a Yankee wasn’t at Yankee Stadium. That’s fitting, because it happened to be his best start in pinstripes. He probably had better statistical games but in a win-or-go-home game four in the ALDS, Burnett went out and pitched five and two thirds innings of one run ball, allowing just four hits to a Detroit Tigers line-up that had posted 13 runs and 24 hits in the first three games of the series. Burnett wasn’t a sure bet to start the game until the day of the contest and after one of the worst three-year stretches of his career, the six-foot-four righty capped off his days as a Yankee with a season saving performance and walked off the mound without a single cheer from the crowd.
The acquisition of Michael Pineda this off-season made Burnett expendable for the Yankees. And after finding a suitor in the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York has parted ways with the 35-year old pitcher in exchange for 25-year old relief prospect Diego Moreno who had a 3.21 ERA in 33 innings at high A ball last year and 19-year old outfielder Exicardo Cayones who hit .293 in 82 at-bats in rookie ball last season. In other words, the Yankees wanted to get rid of the majority of Burnett’s salary and took back two low graded prospects to do so. The Pirates will also be taking on $13 million of Burnett’s remaining $33 million salary.
The Pirates will sound like an odd destination to most. The popular perception of the Pirates is that they are constantly rebuilding and the acquisition of a 35-year old that was erratic in New York as well as a clubhouse cancer (to an extent) seems to go directly against that plan. While there is some truth to that, the reality is that the Pirates aren’t currently in a rebuilding stage. Sure, they aren’t contenders at the moment but they are in more of a transitional phase than a rebuilding one. Their farm system is sturdy with a few top-end prospects and they aren’t looking to deal off any of their major league talent. Instead, the Pirates are in the middle of the two phases.
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Today’s impatient society has fans that want their teams to be competing for titles or rebuilding for the future. The Pirates won’t be a World Series favorite but long-term prognosis isn’t exactly sunny, either, because of the team’s inability to spend with the top dogs. That leaves the Pirates with a three-year window to compete that will be here in 2014-15. But until then the Pirates aren’t rebuilding, they are simply waiting for their current stars to reach their primes (Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, James McDonald) and their top prospects to reach the majors (Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, Starling Marte, Tony Sanchez). The pieces are already in the organization, it’s just a matter of time before they get to the show.
So when you look at the Pirates as a team that is in transition it’s easier to see why the Pirates trading for A.J. Burnett makes sense.
Burnett was awful with the Yankees. There is no getting around that. But going from New York to Pittsburgh is just about as big as a cultural change as you can get. Burnett clearly had issues dealing with the pressure of playing in New York and pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates hasn’t been a pressure filled role in two decades. Just removing that weight from his shoulders should allow Burnett to be an effective pitcher for the Pirates.
The Pirates also play in a much friendly division and league for pitchers. The American League East may be the best offensive division in baseball while the National League Central lost Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, may be without Ryan Braun for 50 games, has the rebuilding Cubs and still has the Astros for one more year. Burnett had the best years of his career when he was a Florida Marlin and now that he’s finally out of the AL East, he should enjoy better results due to the drop in competition.
And finally, Burnett is leaving the unfriendly confines of Yankee Stadium, which is the worst park in baseball for right-handed pitchers, for beautiful PNC Park, which had the sixth worst homer rate in the majors last season and a tall wall in right field that will likely keep all of the line drive homers that Yankee Stadium allows inside the yard.
The combination of all of these things gives Burnett a perfect change of scenery. The Pirates are in need of stopgaps during this transition phase but they also have outside hopes of contending for a playoff spot. Putting Burnett in a rotation with Erik Bedard, Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens and James McDonald (who I think has star potential) gives Pittsburgh a rotation that, if everything goes well, can give them enough quality outings to win 80-90 games.
The Pirates are a team that was a blown call by Jerry Meals away from potentially making the playoffs and changing the landscape of last year’s post-season entirely. As of July 26th (the day Meals blew the call), the Pirates were just a game back of the Cardinals for first place in the central division. By the end of the year they were 24 games back. There were other factors that went into the Pirates collapse but that date marked the beginning of the downfall. Still, if the Pirates were good enough to contend in the NL Central for 101 games, they can’t be too far off from doing so in a 162 game season provided none of their best players take a step back.
A.J. Burnett may have had an awful stint with the Yankees but on a team that isn’t expected to do big things until a couple years down the line, he is a great fit. Burnett still has enough ability to be a quality to above average starter in this league (his average fast ball speed is still a solid 92 MPH and his knuckle curve is one of the best pitches in baseball when he’s on his game) and if he can come into the season with a clear mind, I think he will be. Put Burnett on a staff with a lot of experience but also substantial potential with a decent and improving bullpen behind him and a young and up-and-coming line-up batting for him, and the Pirates may end up being better than advertised this season.
Photo Credit: Anthony J. Causi/Icon SMI