BRADENTON, Fla. -- Life went on at Pirate City Thursday as pitchers and catchers reported to spring training without A.J. Burnett, their 2013 opening day starter.
Burnett turned down a one-year, $12 million offer by the Pirates to sign with Philadelphia for $16 million on the eve of spring training, leaving his former teammates surprised. By mid-morning it had sunken in that the mercurial right-hander would not be strutting through the clubhouse.
"I was thinking he'll just walk in here one day and say, 'I'm here!' But it is what it is," said left-handed pitcher Francisco Liriano. "I was kind of surprised. I was hoping he would come back and play with us. But that's how it is. It's baseball."
Spring Training Report: Catcher Russell Martin
Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin talks about the departure of pitcher A.J. Burnett in an interview from spring training camp in Bradenton, Fla. (Video by Peter Diana; 2/13/2014)
Burnett, who rekindled his career with the Pirates in two years, saw his ERA plunge, his ground-ball rate soar and his stock rise as a clubhouse leader, despite some incidents that might have signaled otherwise.
"I was a bit surprised. That's just about everything I was, I was surprised," said catcher Russell Martin. "He seemed like he was wanting to come back here, and yeah, that's it. I don't know all what went into his decision-making. I'm not A.J. and didn't feel the need to ask him. He got a nice chunk of change, that's for sure."
Martin said he texted Burnett to wish him well, adding he hopes Burnett stays healthy so the two teams meet in the playoffs and the Pirates can "beat him."
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington pursued Burnett's return, but said he was told by Burnett and his agent that location ruled the choice to sign with the Phillies, not dollars.
"Based on my conversations with A.J. and with his agent, it was driven by proximity to home and the fact he can drive home after any game and be home and be there the next morning," said Huntington. "Anything he needs to be home for, proximity is what I've been told. I'm going to take them for their word."
Burnett, 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA over two seasons as a Pirate, also averaged 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings. His presence went beyond the numbers.
The young pitching staff may have benefited most from the veteran's 15-yearmajor league career.
"The things that he taught the kids last year are not forgotten. Everything that they learned from A.J. I hope they don't forget and I don't think they will," said Martin. "He definitely was a leader the way he approached the game and the way that he competed when he went on the mound.
"The warrior-type attitude that he had kind of trickled all the way down through. But he wasn't the only leader on that team. Liriano was more of a quiet presence, but he took the ball every time out there and he competed just like A.J. did in his own way. You don't necessarily feel like replacing, you can't replace somebody, but the next guy can do whatever he can do to make his own mark."
Left-hander Jeff Locke was particularly close with Burnett -- they still text each other daily -- and said he will be missed.
"We're moving forward without Mr. A.J.," said Locke. "It's a different presence, not that anybody really notices it today I don't think, but come first game of the year? Not having that guy in there, not having somebody yell at you for doing everything right, it's just a good guy to have on the team.
"He mentored a lot of guys. It's no different than when your father tells you something, your mother tells you something, and you just don't listen to them. Then, your buddy tells you something, and you do it."
The Pirates will now set out to find a pitcher or two who can provide the 191 innings that Burnett provided last year in 30 starts.
"I think one of the exciting things is that it opens up opportunities for the men that we have here in camp," said manager Clint Hurdle. "One of the things that you continually want to give to people is opportunity. We've got depth in the starting rotation.
"We've got some guys in place that fared well for us and had good solid campaigns for us last year. It could be one guy, it could be two guys to pick up the volume of innings.
"That's a concern any time you have somebody leave the rotation that pitched close to 200 innings in back to back seasons. We've created a culture of opportunity and manning up."
Staff writer Bill Brink contributed. Jenn Menendez: email@example.com and Twitter @JennMenendez.