Ron Cook: Burnett can't keep stringing along Pirates


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Talked to Pirates general manager Neal Huntington for more than an hour the other night. There was no sign of panic in his voice. No update on pitcher A.J. Burnett, who continues to keep the organization guessing about his 2014 plans. No news on potential additions to fill glaring needs at first base, shortstop and in right field. No offseason moves at all to discuss except for the addition of backup catcher Chris Stewart in a minor trade. But absolutely no panic.

Two things ...

It's Dec. 8, not March 31, when the Pirates will meet the Chicago Cubs on opening day at PNC Park.

And two ...

"We haven't just been sitting on the sideline," Huntington said. "We've been engaged in conversations with a lot of clubs and a lot of different players. We just haven't found the move to make us push the button."

It's no surprise the Pirates haven't made a splash by adding a high-priced player. Did you really expect them to enter the Robinson Cano sweepstakes? There weren't in the game for Jacoby Ellsbury, Jhonny Peralta, Curtis Granderson, Carlos Beltran or Mike Napoli. And a Twitter report last week that they are in trade talks with the Tampa Bay Rays for pitcher David Price is sheer nonsense. There's no way the Pirates are going to pay a pitcher -- any pitcher -- $15 million a year for two years and give up the coveted prospects it would take to get him.

"That's not just Pittsburgh-centric," Huntington said. "There are a lot fewer clubs that can play at the top of the market than clubs that can't. We just can't afford to do 'X.' Well, we could, but then how would we build a championship-caliber club around that one player?"

Major League Baseball's winter meetings start Monday in Orlando, Fla. It's getting close to the time for Huntington to push that button. Trades are being made and players are jumping off the free-agent board. The Pirates' chief competitors in the National League Central Division -- the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds -- have made moves to upgrade. The Cardinals signed shortstop Peralta to a four-year, $52 million deal and traded for Los Angeles Angels outfielder Peter Bourjos. The Reds acquired infielder/outfielder Skip Schumaker. The Pirates' lone move was trading for Stewart to back up Russell Martin.

"Quite candidly, the best free-agent acquisition we can make for the 2014 Pirates is A.J. Burnett," Huntington said. "He would be a great addition to our club."

Burnett has said publicly and told the Pirates privately that he will pitch for them next season or retire, but he hasn't made up his mind. So the team continues to wait, to the point that it's getting ridiculous. Huntington made it clear his patience isn't endless.

"We're continuing to try to be respectful of the process," he said. "This is a huge decision for A.J. I can't imagine there's anything worse for an athlete to hang it up a year too early. He's earned the right to take his time ...

"But we will come to the point where A.J. will have to make a decision or we will have to make a decision."

Is it too much to ask for that decision to be made today?

We're talking about significant money here for the Pirates. It probably will cost them $10 million to $12 million to keep Burnett next season. Many will call them cheap if that isn't enough to get a deal done, but you won't read that here. Burnett, though having a fine season in 2013 with a 3.30 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 191 innings, will be 37 in January and spent significant time on the disabled list with a calf injury. He's not worth more -- not worth the gamble -- at least not to the Pirates, who have those other needs to fill. There's no way they can go into the season without adding a left-handed bat.

"If A.J. wants to get top-of-the-market money because he's a top-of-the-market pitcher, it won't be from the Pittsburgh Pirates," Huntington said. "We like to think Pittsburgh is the place he wants to be. We want him to pitch for us."

That despite a hissy fit Burnett threw with Huntington, manager Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage when Hurdle told him he was passing over him for rookie Gerrit Cole as the starter for Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Cardinals in October. All parties have said it was ugly. All also said it was in the past.

"Absolutely," Huntington said. "Clint and A.J. have talked. I've talked to both. Clint would take A.J. Burnett back on our club."

Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, let's talk business.

The Pirates need to know Burnett's plans so they can move forward and invest that money in another player or players.

"It hasn't inhibited our offseason yet," Huntington said.

The key word there is "yet."

The way Huntington explained it, the Pirates haven't been close enough to signing a free agent or making a trade to have to go to Burnett and ask, "Are you with us or not? We need to know now." Huntington won't talk about specific players, but it's believed the team inquired about free-agent pitcher Josh Johnson and looked into trading for Detroit pitchers Doug Fister and Rick Porcello. Johnson signed a one-year, $8 million contract with the San Diego Padres. Fister was traded to the Washington Nationals.

With Burnett, the Pirates would have a strong top of the rotation with Francisco Liriano and Cole. Huntington said he's confident Wandy Rodriguez will bounce back from his elbow injury and Jeff Locke from his miserable second half this past season. He said he sees Brandon Cumpton and Stolmy Pimentel as legitimate starting candidates. He said Jameson Taillon and Nick Kingham should be able to help later in the season.

But that won't stop Huntington from looking to add pitching. No team ever has enough pitching.

"We like to think we can make it work with A.J.," Huntington said. "But we can't lose out on significant other opportunities without a Plan B. At some point, Plan B will have to be activated ...

"There definitely is a Plan B."

That's nice to know, right?

It's time for Huntington to go to Burnett, find out his plans and implement that Plan B, if necessary.

You know, before panic sets in.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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