In 25 days, Pirates pitchers and catchers will report for spring training. Pitching coach Ray Searage is taking a realistic approach as to whether A.J. Burnett will be among them.
“I’m going without A.J. until I hear differently,” Searage said last week. “I have to.”
Roughly three months have passed since Burnett, the free-agent right-hander who spent the past two seasons here, told KDKA-FM that he planned to return to the Pirates or retire. Burnett, 37, has given no indication of his plans, and Searage said he has not heard from Burnett despite reaching out. General manager Neal Huntington said last week that he continues to communicate with the Burnett camp.
“Still working through the process,” Huntington said.
A recent report in the Baltimore Sun suggested that the Orioles were interested in Burnett, who lives in Maryland in the offseason. Burnett has given no indication that he has shifted from his Pirates-or-retire stance in October; he did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Burnett’s decision will impact several areas. Here are some ramifications:
Without Burnett, the rotation likely will consist of Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez, who signed a one-year, $5 million contract in December. The Pirates’ starting depth consists of Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton and Phil Irwin. Jeanmar Gomez showed in 2013 that he can start if necessary, and Stolmy Pimentel pitched almost exclusively as a starter in his minor league career.
If Burnett returned, he would force someone from the rotation. Between the money the pitchers will earn and their level of performance, there is no clear-cut candidate for removal. The Pirates, however, have had more starters than rotation spots on the roster before and figured it out as they went, covering for injuries and sending starters to the bullpen if necessary.
The current starters are not all guarantees. Rodriguez missed the final four months of 2013 because of an injury to the flexor tendon in his left forearm. Searage said Rodriguez was throwing from 120 feet at the Pirates’ recent mini-camp.
“He’s going to go through some aches and pains as he’s getting in shape, and he’s got to understand that,” Searage said. “I think he’s got a good idea which is pain and which is soreness.”
The Pirates also hope Volquez approaches a version of himself not seen since 2008. Volquez led the National League in earned runs last season and has had an ERA above 4.00 every season since 2009. His 5.71 ERA last season was the highest in baseball among qualified starters.
After avoiding arbitration with all of their eligible players last week, the Pirates’ 2014 payroll climbed to $70.8 million. The nine players who will round out the 25-man opening-day roster will make the major league minimum of $500,000 or slightly more, adding about $5 million. Add the rest of the 40-man roster, and the Pirates will approach the neighborhood of $77 or $78 million. The Houston Astros will pay $5.5 million of that as part of the Rodriguez trade.
Burnett made $16.5 million last season in the final year of a five-year, $82.5 million contract he signed with the New York Yankees before the 2009 season. He would likely ask for at least $10 million and possibly closer to $15 million, which would raise the payroll to the $90 million range. The Pirates did not extend Burnett a qualifying offer of $14.1 million, which would have returned a draft pick if Burnett signed with another team.
Major League Baseball’s new national television contracts will pay the Pirates, like all teams, an additional $27 million beginning in 2014. They will not receive all of that money because MLB will withhold some for the central fund, but increased distribution will help if Burnett decides to return.
Huntington said last week that the Pirates’ stance on Burnett has not changed with the passage of time. He has said previously that Burnett’s pending decision did not prevent them from making a move they wished to make.
“We did what we felt we needed to do this offseason,” Huntington said. “We felt we did what was right for the club. If A.J. decides he wants to pitch for us, that’s a great bonus.”
The Pirates have explored upgrades at first base, both in free agency and via trade. They were in on James Loney, who re-signed with the Tampa Bay Rays, and have reportedly discussed deals for Ike Davis, Mitch Moreland and Adam Lind.
There is still time to upgrade the roster — a bullpen chock-full of good relievers, some of whom are out of options, could help a trade come together — and there appears to be some financial wiggle room. Re-signing Burnett could hamstring, in a financial sense, the Pirates’ ability to further upgrade the roster.
Having not yet decided to retire, Burnett would need to prepare himself to report to spring training, somewhere, in less than a month. That should not be a problem for Burnett, a notorious early morning workout devotee who learned from two-time Cy Young Award-winner Roy Halladay in Toronto.
“With A.J. and the previous two years, he’s got a program,” Searage said. “From all indications, from the rumor mill, he’s staying close to it.”
From the pictures Burnett has posted on his Twitter account, he has done a decent amount of mudding on four-wheelers this offseason, as well as spending time with his wife and two sons. He continues to pay attention to his teammates, on Twitter, at least, recently offering advice to outfielder Travis Snider on how to deal with a cracked iPad screen.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG.