Are Pirates in Burnett's future?

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If Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett announces his retirement at some point in the offseason, which he has said is a possibility, he would become the rarest of professional athletes: One walking away at the top of his game.

The case can easily be made that Burnett, who will be 37 in January, is coming off the two best consecutive seasons of his MLB career, which began in 1999.

• His ERAs the past two seasons of 3.30 and 3.51 are the first and third best of his career.

• His WHIPs the past two seasons of 1.21 and 1.24 are the third and fourth best of his career. The first and second best did not come in consecutive years.

• His strikeouts per nine innings this season was the best of his career and he led the National League with a rate of 9.85. The pitchers directly behind him were Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey and Steven Strasburg.

• He was ninth best in BAA this season, eighth best in OPS-against and sixth best in slugging-against.

The man is at least as good and possibly better than at any time in his career. So why would he want to retire? Possibly because he already has earned $120 million in his career. But if money were his only agenda, he could have quit years ago.

The guess here is Burnett is far too competitive to give up on something he does so well. It seems almost unthinkable that he could walk away with so much left in his tank.

But will he be a Pirate next season?

That decision rests mostly, but not entirely, with Burnett. As a prospective free agent, he controls where he goes. But it's also possible the Pirates will not want him back. That sounds silly considering how well Burnett pitched in his two seasons with the team. But such a suggestion is not without foundation.

The 2014 Pirates have greater needs than starting pitching. The franchise also is deepest in pitching in its minor-league system, including close-to-being-ready Jameson Taillon. The Pirates might feel their future, both 2014 and beyond, could better be served to allocating what Burnett would make to other areas.

These are the Pirates existing salary obligations for 2014:

Russell Martin, $8.5 million; Francisco Liriano, $8 million; Wandy Rodriguez, $7.5 million; Andrew McCutchen, $7.25 million; Jason Grilli, $4 million; Jose Tabata, $3 million. That totals $38.25 million.

These are educated guesses of the salaries arbitration-eligible players will receive:

Neil Walker, $5 million; Pedro Alvarez, $4 million; Charlie Morton, $4 million; Gaby Sanchez, $2.75 million; Mark Melancon, $2.5 million; Vin Mazzaro, $1.75 million. That totals $20 million, which puts the payroll for 12 players at $58.25 million.

There are 13 more players that must be paid. For the sake of discussion, say 11 of those players will receive the MLB minimum or close to it. That would add about another $5.5 million, pushing the payroll to about $64 million.

If the Pirates were to make a qualifying offer to Burnett, which would assure they'd get a first-round draft choice if he signed with another team, that would add the MLB-designated $14.1 million to the payroll. That puts it at $78 million.

The last spot would be reserved for one key free agent, whose salary would be in the $8 million range and which would push the payroll to $86 million.

By my figuring, the Pirates had a payroll of about $67 million this year. That does not include salary paid to Pirates players by other teams. Going from $67 million to $86 million represents an increase of 28 percent, a sizable jump. But since the Pirates will receive additional revenue of between $20 million and $25 million from the new national TV contracts such an increase should be within their financial structure.

But without the Burnett contract, the Pirates could do more at other positions. Instead of bringing in one free agent at about $8 million, they could bring in two, as they did this season. They could strengthen themselves at first base and right field. They also could add to their bench.

It's a tough call for Burnett and the Pirates.

Burnett has resurrected his career in Pittsburgh. He has built strong bonds with his teammates, who look upon him as a mentor and a leader. There are plenty of reasons for him to stay.

But there's also the thrill of new horizons. He could just about have his pick of teams, including Baltimore, which is close to home. And he probably could receive a larger and/or longer contract elsewhere.

It's a tough call, too, for the Pirates, who'd love to have Burnett back but who'd also love to be able to strengthen other positions.

The Pirates have said they want to keep Burnett. Burnett has said nothing, which might -- might -- be saying a lot.


First Published October 17, 2013 8:00 PM


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