Bob Smizik: Burnett likely to hit free agency

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It looks like A.J. Burnett is going to pitch in 2014, as opposed to retiring, and in all likelihood it won’t be for the Pirates.

Multiple reports have Burnett amenable to tearing himself away from his family for at least one more fling at competitive pitching and making millions. Exactly how he goes about this is still undisclosed. Burnett has made no public comment on this matter.

He’s a big workout guy, which means there’s a good chance he’d be ready to go when pitchers and catchers report next month -- if a deal can be done. Burnett could command a two-year contract in the $30 million range. It’s also possible he’d prefer to do what Roger Clemens did so successfully in his later years and delay his 2014 debut until mid-season. At that point in time, there figure to be multiple contenders in need of pitching and some desperately so.

It seems unlikely, considering the money involved, that the Pirates would be part of either scenario.

It’s not like Burnett needs the money. He has earned $120.7 million in his MLB career, which dates back to 1999. But rare is the pro athlete who walks into retirement with an eight-figure contract on the table.

No one should be surprised that Burnett is not -- as many believed was the case -- retiring or pitching for the Pirates. He made it clear in at least one interview all his options were open, although almost all of the local and national media failed to pick up on that and continued to portray the myth that his immediate future was with the Pirates or full-time with his family.

One of the last times Burnett spoke publicly was with Colin Dunlap on The Fan, shortly after the end of the season. Burnett said all the right things about his time with the Pirates, how much he loved Pittsburgh and the possibility of retirement. But when Dunlap pushed him and asked if it was going to be either retirement or the Pirates, this is what Burnett said:

''As of right now, that’s where my mind is, yes sir, as of right now."

Could he have been any more clear that his options were wide open?

Every bit as surprising as the failure of people to pick up on Burnett’s intent was the incredible transformation he has undergone in the eyes of at least some fans.

He has gone from respected leader and staff ace to "clubhouse cancer" and "who needs him?"

Two points:

• He is not a clubhouse cancer. He is a respected leader.

• The Pirates needed him.

Over the past two seasons, 123 starters pitched at least 200 innings in MLB. In that group, Burnett ranks 17th in FIP and 12th in xFIP. You don’t have to know the full meaning of those stats to realize they puts Burnett in some pretty good company. In terms of ERA, he was 18th in the National League last year and 16th the year before.

Additionally, he led National League starters in K/9. That’s right, he whiffed batters more regularly than such young guns as Stephen Strasburg, Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey. In other words, there’s no sign of him slowing down.

What team would not want such a pitcher?

Many remember Burnett for his beyond-terrible start in the postseason. What’s often forgotten is that in his final two regular-season starts he pitched 15 innings in 4-1 and 4-2 wins over Cincinnati, which helped the Pirates secure home field for the wildcard game.

The Pirates rotation, as of today, looks like this: Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez. Anyone who thinks the Pirates could not use Burnett -- in fact, need him very much -- doesn’t know baseball.

Rodriguez missed the final four months of last season with an arm injury and his return comes with no guarantees. Volquez is a worthy reclamation project, nothing more. Burnett brings considerably more to the rotation than either of those two.

The offseason take on the National League Central is that the St. Louis Cardinals are a solid favorite to finish first. That doesn’t mean they will, but most people agree they have the best team. That would leave the Pirates seeking one of two wildcard spots. They are very much in the running for those spots, along with Arizona, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Washington or Atlanta. Add the Pirates to the mix and it’s five teams seeking two slots.

Here’s what Jeff Sullivan of wrote about how Burnett would affect those races:

''Odds are, the Pirates are a step behind the Cardinals, and the gap is probably wider than one A.J. Burnett. But Burnett could close the gap substantially, and he’d also improve the Pirates’ wildcard chances. Right now they project to be similar to the Diamondbacks and the Giants and the Braves and the Nationals. If Burnett could make them better by a couple wins, that could have an enormous effect on Pittsburgh’s chances of hosting more playoff baseball. A Burnett return could make the Pirates wildcard favorites and also a stronger NL Central threat."

Amazingly, he’s been casually dismissed as almost irrelevant by some fans of the team.

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