From the Pirates’ perspective, reports that A.J. Burnett plans to pitch this year does not change much. He still might or might not rejoin the team — the same situation that existed in November.
For the rest of baseball, the free-agent pool just became more interesting. It now contains a veteran pitcher who showed no signs of decline in 2013 and who likely can be signed to a short-term contract.
As revenue across the game has increased, so has the size of players contracts. Clayton Kershaw, the National League Cy Young winner in 2013, represents the top of the food chain with his seven-year, $215 million contract, but the increase holds true across the board. Mid-level pitchers agreed to more expensive deals this offseason as teams realize, with power down in the game, that strong rotations are necessary to compete.
“The dynamics of the industry as well continue to shift and change, as we see again this winter,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said at the winter meetings, after the team and starting pitcher Charlie Morton agreed to a three-year, $21 million extension.
Some lower-caliber starting pitchers have agreed to sizable contracts this offseason, which makes Burnett’s entry into the market more complicated. Conversations Wednesday indicated that Burnett is keeping his plans to himself, and he has not returned phone messages seeking comment.
Burnett went 10-11 with a 3.30 ERA in 191 innings for the Pirates in 2013. He led the National League among qualified starters with 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings and a 56.5 percent ground-ball rate. He is 37, though, and missed a month of the season because of a small tear in his calf.
After making $16.5 million in 2013, the final year of a five-year, $82.5 million contract signed before the 2009 season, Burnett could find himself with one of the higher contracts, in terms of average annual value, among free-agent starters this offseason.
Among the best of the bunch to sign — apart from Masahiro Tanaka, who joined the New York Yankees via the international posting system — is Ricky Nolasco, whose 3.70 ERA in 1991⁄3 innings in 2013 earned a four-year, $49 million contract with the Minnesota Twins. Despite missing the first month and a half of 2013 due to injury, Matt Garza agreed to $50 million for four years with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Phil Hughes, who had a 5.19 ERA and 1.46 WHIP with the Yankees last year, also signed with the Twins for $24 million across three years. Scott Feldman, who had a 3.86 ERA and kept the ball in the ballpark but had only a 6.5 strikeouts-per-nine inning mark, signed with the Houston Astros for three years and $30 million. Jason Vargas and his 4.02 ERA went to the Kansas City Royals for four years and $32 million.
The catch: All those pitchers are at least 6 years younger than Burnett. Tim Hudson, 38, signed with the San Francisco Giants for two years and $23 million after compiling a 3.97 ERA in 2013. Hudson is recovering from a broken ankle in July when he was stepped on while covering first base. Hiroki Kuroda, 38, is perhaps the best comparison: After posting a 3.31 ERA in 2011⁄3 innings, he signed a one-year, $16 million contract with the Yankees.
With Hudson, Nolasco, Feldman and Garza signing contracts averaging between $10 million and $12.5 million a year and Kuroda signing for $16 million, Burnett could command $15 million a year or more.
Because the Pirates did not extend Burnett a $14.1 million qualifying offer, he is not tied to draft-pick compensation. This could make him more attractive to teams, especially because the best two starters available, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez, each declined qualifying offers. That means any team signing them would forfeit a first-round draft pick or a second-rounder if its pick falls in the top 10.
“He can still decline it. His ability to leave doesn’t change,” general manager Neal Huntington said in November, after the Pirates did not give Burnett a qualifying offer. “We remain optimistic and remain respectful of A.J. to work through his process.”
Jimenez, 30, struck out 194 in 1822⁄3 innings in 2013 with a 3.30 ERA. Santana, 31, had a 3.24 ERA in 211 innings, the third season out of four in which he surpassed 200 innings.
After those two and Burnett, the market gives way to the likes of Bronson Arroyo, Jason Hammel and Paul Maholm. Because of Burnett’s level of performance and the probability that teams won’t have to commit to a long-term deal to sign him, he likely will garner significant interest.
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