LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Nothing has changed between the Pirates and A.J. Burnett, but something might happen soon.
“He’s earned the right to make a decision: Does he want to pitch another year?” general manager Neal Huntington said Monday, the first day of the winter meetings at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Resort. “I’ve also said from the get-go, there may come a point in time when we may have to either ask him to be in or out, or we may have to choose to go in a different direction.”
Burnett, who will be 37 by opening day 2014, became a free agent at the conclusion of his five-year, $82.5 million contract, which the Pirates inherited from the New York Yankees when they traded for him in 2012. He struck out almost a batter per inning and had a 3.41 ERA for the Pirates in 2012-13.
After the season, Burnett told KDKA-FM 93.7 that he planned to re-sign with the Pirates or retire, but had not decided by the start of baseball’s annual four-day meetings.
“We are still engaged and still working through that process with him,” Huntington said. “I don’t feel like we’ve missed anything to date because we were waiting. But that may change as we get deeper in the offseason.”
Regardless of his age, Burnett can still pitch: He struck out 209 batters in 191 innings last season, posted a 3.30 ERA and gave up his fewest home runs since 2004. He missed a month while on the disabled list because of a small tear in his calf.
In addition to the front office and fans, players are interested in what Burnett will do. Some have asked starter Jeff Locke, a friend of Burnett’s, if he has heard anything. Locke said by phone Monday that he hasn’t.
Without Burnett, the rotation contains three locks and uncertainty in the final two spots. Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton will start the season in the rotation. Liriano’s 2014 contract option is vested, Morton is eligible for arbitration for the final time, and Cole, who made his major league debut last season, has not reached arbitration.
Wandy Rodriguez, who has exercised his option for 2014, made 12 starts last season before an injury to the flexor tendon in his left forearm ended his season. Huntington said Rodriguez, who will be 35 opening day, feels good through the early stages of his throwing program and is expected to be ready for spring training.
Locke could fill the fifth spot in the rotation. He finished 2013 with a 6.12 second-half ERA and 37 walks in 571⁄3 innings after an 8-2 record and 2.15 ERA in the first half earned him a spot on the National League All-Star team. Young pitchers such as Brandon Cumpton, Phil Irwin and Stolmy Pimentel could also compete for the fifth spot.
“We like what we have in house, but, if there’s an opportunity to complement it, we certainly would continue to explore that,” Huntington said. “We haven’t just sat on the sidelines. We’ve been aggressive, we’ve been out there. We haven’t felt like we’ve missed something that we wished we would have done or could have done, so we’ll continue down that pathway.”
Burnett has been involved in pro baseball since 1995, when he was an 18-year-old in the New York Mets organization. His 15-year major league career has included a no-hitter in 2001 and a World Series ring in 2009 with the Yankees. Roy Halladay, who is Burnett’s age and shared a rotation spot with Burnett for the Toronto Blue Jays years ago, retired Monday.
Halladay had back issues that impeded his delivery. Burnett is as healthy as a 36-year-old pitcher can get, but might choose to retire to spend more time with his family.
“I can’t begin for a minute to imagine what it’s like to have a great career and try to decide, do I want to spend time with my wife and kids, or do I want to compete one more year?” Huntington said. “I wouldn’t want to begin. I respect what A.J’s done. I respect who he is. I respect what he’s done for us. Hope he comes back. If he doesn’t, we’ll appreciate the two years he played in Pittsburgh.”
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BrinkPG.