During last night’s podcast, I tried to predict where free agent pitchers Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Bronson Arroyo would end up. I described the triumvirate as the last three starting pitchers left on the open market, and intentionally omitted A.J. Burnett because he had not yet decided whether he was going to retire or return in 2014. I was of the belief that that kind of posturing indicated Burnett was more likely than not to announce his retirement as Spring Training neared.
Fast forward to this afternoon, and news has leaked that a source close to the free agent pitcher has confirmed that Burnett does, in fact, plan to pitch in 2014 (for the record, I really hate reports based on sources “close to the situation”).
Back in October, Burnett told a Pittsburgh radio station that he was mulling over two options: (1) retiring, or (2) returning to pitch for the Pirates next season. But after today’s report, it seems like Burnett may be backing away from that two-option plan. The anonymous source close to Burnett suspects that the 37 year old will open himself up to the free agent market.
If that’s the case, it will be open season on the bidding war for his services. And there’s no telling where the left hander might end up.
Though aging, Burnett has proven to still be far more than simply serviceable. Last season, Burnett was 10-11 with a 3.30 ERA and led the Pirates with 191 innings pitched and 209 strikeouts. Since arriving in Pittsburgh after an up and down stint with the Yankees, Burnett has helped resurrect a Pirates franchise from baseball doldrums to everyone’s darling child Wild Card Game winner.
Last season, Burnett made $16.5 million in base salary – more than any other player on the roster. In December, the Pirates declined to offer him a $14.1 million qualifying offer, so there will be no draft pick compensation involved if he decides to sign elsewhere.
Rumors are already popping up that the Orioles, Phillies, Mariners and Blue Jays may have interest in signing Burnett to a one-year deal, but I for one hope he decides to honor his October pledge and stay on with Pittsburgh. In my mind, he’s the face of that organization’s resurgence, and they certainly need his arm. In December, the Pirates signed left-hander Edinson Volquez to a one-year $5 million contract, almost an insurance policy in the event that Burnett did decide to hang ’em up. But Volquez is not Burnett. He’s not as durable. He’s not as reliable. He’s not as talented.
Right now the Pirates’ rotation will be anchored by Francisco Liriano and second-year starter Gerrit Cole. Charlie Morton and Wandy Rodriguez will earn roles, which leaves the likes of Volquez, Jeff Locke, Brandon Crumpton and Phil Irwin to compete for the fifth spot. The Pirates have gotten a taste of the playoffs. If they’re serious about returning this coming season, Burnett is not a commodity, he’s a necessity. If he truly wants to return to the MLB, Pittsburgh’s front office should do everything in their power to get him back in the fold.