BRADENTON, Fla. — As pitchers and catchers descend on Florida and Arizona for the start of spring training this week, one of the best free-agent starters finally knows where he is headed.
A.J. Burnett agreed to terms Wednesday with the Philadelphia Phillies, according to sources, ending more than three months of uncertainty regarding whether the 37-year-old right-hander would retire, return to the Pirates or sign elsewhere.
Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal first reported that Burnett will sign a one-year, $16 million contract.
The Pirates, whose pitchers and catchers begin spring training today after reporting Wednesday to Pirate City, did not extend a $14.1 million qualifying offer to Burnett after the World Series, meaning they will not receive a compensatory draft pick once he signs with the Phillies.
The Pirates offered Burnett $12 million, according to a source. That would have made him the second-highest paid player on the roster behind Wandy Rodriguez at $13 million — $5.5 million of which the Houston Astros are paying — and represented roughly 13 percent of a payroll that would have approached $90 million. CBS Sports first reported the Pirates’ offer.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, president Frank Coonelly and manager Clint Hurdle said all winter that they would welcome Burnett back if he wanted to return, and Huntington repeatedly said he had continued dialogue with Burnett’s agent, Darek Braunecker.
“A.J.’s contributions to the organization were real and meaningful and played an important role in what we were able to accomplish as a team during his two years here,” Coonelly said in a statement released via the Pirates’ official Twitter account. “We thank him for his service to the organization and the joy that he helped to bring to our great fans and we wish him well at his next destination.”
Huntington did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Burnett joined the Pirates at the beginning of spring training in 2012 in a trade with the New York Yankees and spent the final two years of his five-year, $82.5 million contract in Pittsburgh. In two seasons with the Pirates, he went 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA and struck out 389 batters in 3931⁄3 innings. In 2013, Burnett’s 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings led the National League, but he also missed a month with a slight tear in his calf.
With the Pirates, Burnett shed the control and home run problems that plagued him in his three seasons with the Yankees. He walked three batters per nine innings as a Pirate, a full walk lower than his rate in New York, and his home runs allowed per nine innings dropped by 0.5. The number of wild pitches he threw returned to normal after he led the American League in the category twice in his three years with New York.
In October, Burnett told 93.7 The Fan that, as of then, his plans were to return to the Pirates or retire. Burnett spoke highly of the way Pirates fans embraced him and the way Hurdle allowed him to be himself.
But Burnett clashed at times with coaches, and he did not like the defensive shifts the team employed. That led to angry words directed toward shortstop Clint Barmes in September after a ground ball snuck past a shifted infield.
Burnett also was upset with the way Hurdle handled the postseason rotation. Burnett allowed seven runs and four walks in two innings against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium, where he had pitched poorly as a Pirate. Hurdle turned to rookie Gerrit Cole to start the decisive Game 5 in St. Louis rather than Burnett.
Signing with the Phillies makes sense for Burnett in a few ways. Pitching there allows him to stay closer to his home in Monkton, Md., roughly 100 miles southwest of Philadelphia. According to reports out of Philadelphia, Burnett is a neighbor and friend of Phillies assistant general manager Scott Proefrock.
But Burnett will be pitching home games in Citizens Bank Park, which according to ESPN’s park factor ratings was the most home run-friendly ballpark last season. PNC Park ranked second to last.
The Phillies and Pirates will meet for exhibition games March 2, 14, 16 and 22 in Florida, and March 28-29 at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies will visit PNC Park in July and the Pirates travel to Philadelphia in September.
With Burnett off the market, the Pirates are starting spring training with a probable rotation of Francisco Liriano, Cole, Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez. Rodriguez, 35, missed the final four months of last season because of an injury to the flexor tendon in his left arm.
Pitching coach Ray Searage said Rodriguez played catch at a distance of 120 feet at the January minicamp and reported no ill effects, but Searage noted there will be aches and pains along the way.
“He was pretty happy about the way he felt,” Searage said at the time.
Though some position players already have arrived, the full squad does not have to report until Monday.
The start of workouts also will reveal how Travis Snider’s left big toe is healing. Snider had surgery after the season to clean out bone spurs and remove the sesamoid bone. Snider, who will compete with Jose Tabata, Jaff Decker and possibly Andrew Lambo for playing time in right field, said in early December that he expected to be ready for spring training.
Lambo’s transition to first base will be another interesting aspect of the team’s preseason. The Pirates will play him there to see if the left-handed hitter can become a platoon partner for the right-handed Gaby Sanchez.
“If he doesn’t turn out to be our best first-base option, we can jump him back out to right field and be comfortable with him there if he’s swinging the bat well enough to be [in] that spot,” Huntington said recently.
It remains possible that the Pirates will trade for a first baseman, either a platoon partner or a full-time option. Possibilities include Seattle’s Justin Smoak, Texas’ Mitch Moreland, the Mets’ Ike Davis and Toronto’s Adam Lind. Moreland, Davis and Lind are left-handed and Smoak is a switch-hitter.
Should the Pirates choose to deal, their bullpen offers a good place to start. Considering the pitchers who are out of options, the locks to make the roster and the number of capable arms in the mix, there may be a surplus of major league-ready relievers, allowing the Pirates to deal from a position of strength.
Asked about the possibility of imminent moves, Huntington said the Pirates continued discussions with agents and other clubs.
“We continue to have ongoing dialogue, for both free agents and trades.” Huntington said. “We’re also very comfortable if that’s the way we report next week.”
Staff writer Jenn Menendez contributed. Bill Brink: email@example.com and Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published February 12, 2014 12:13 PM