Ron Cook: Pirates got it right with A.J. Burnett


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It looks as if A.J. Burnett’s two-year marriage to the Pirates is ending, perhaps bitterly. I want to be angry at someone because of it. But I can’t.

Certainly, Burnett isn’t to blame. He served the Pirates well and was a big part of their surprising success. But he’s a free agent and can sell himself to the highest bidder. He owes the Pirates nothing. I hope he gets the best deal possible.

Don’t hold Burnett’s Pirates-or-retirement talk in the fall against him. People can change their mind. I believe that he was happy here. I also know that he has made more money in his long career than he and his family will ever need, more than $120 million. But pro athletes keep score among themselves by the numbers on their paycheck. If Burnett really wants to pitch again, as all the stories are saying, and if he feels as if the Pirates low-balled him with their offer for 2014, as his reported plans to test free agency indicate, he has no choice but to look elsewhere.

“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,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said in December. “We like to think Pittsburgh is the place he wants to be.”

Apparently, it is not.

It is Burnett’s right to move on.

But it also is the Pirates’ right to decide Burnett, at 37, isn’t worth 18-20 percent of their payroll.

It’s clear that’s the Pirates’ determination. They had a chance to give Burnett a qualifying offer for $14.1 million after the 2013 season but declined. I can’t blame them. I can criticize them for not spending to add to their lineup at first base and/or right field. It’s a crying shame they didn’t do more. But I’ll be darned if I’m going to rip them for not investing heavily into an aging pitcher whom they didn’t think was good enough to get the ball in the biggest game last season, a pitcher who probably would be no better than No. 3 in their rotation this season behind Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole, maybe even No. 4 behind Charlie Morton.

I’m not even sure Pirates manager Clint Hurdle wants Burnett back despite his rather lukewarm public claims that he does. At various times last season, Burnett showed up Hurdle, pitching coach Ray Searage and shortstop Clint Barmes on the field or in the dugout. Many defended him. “That’s just A.J. being A.J. … He’s such a wonderful competitor.” Well, that’s nonsense. Every Pirates player is a competitor or he wouldn’t be in the big leagues. No matter how much you want to win, it doesn’t give any player the right to treat his bosses and teammates that way. It was shameful.

The worst incident with Burnett happened when Hurdle told him he wasn’t getting the start against the St. Louis Cardinals in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series because of his lousy history at Busch Stadium, including a 9-1 loss in Game 1 when Burnett gave up six hits, seven runs, four walks and a home run in two innings. Everyone involved, including Burnett, said Burnett threw a tantrum. It was so bad that team officials had concerns that Burnett wouldn’t show up the next day for the flight to St. Louis. Burnett made the plane and watched Cole get the Game 5 start, a 6-1 loss.

And people say Burnett is a great team leader?

That whole leadership thing is overrated, anyway. Many gave Burnett a lot of credit for mentoring James McDonald in the first half of the 2012 season, but no one said anything when McDonald fell apart in the second half. The two had a falling out, actually. Should Burnett be praised for working magic with Jeff Locke in the first half of last season? If so, does he deserve blame for Locke’s second-half collapse? I tend to believe Locke — not Burnett — is responsible for both the success and failure.

If anything, the Pirates will miss Burnett’s 191 innings and 209 strikeouts from last season. At least one team, probably more, will figure he can duplicate those numbers this season and will be willing to pay him $14 million or more. Some baseball people have suggested he can get a two-year, $30 million deal.

The Pirates’ actions say neither is a smart deal, especially not for a pitcher who’s reaching the age where physical breakdowns become more common.

I couldn’t agree more.


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

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