Bob Smizik: Will Pirates regret Burnett decision?

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Although the man himself has yet to utter a public word about his future plans, in the space of less than 48 hours it has become a well-established fact that A.J. Burnett will not be retiring, as he suggested and some expected, but will be pitching in 2014.

This brings immediately to mind two questions:

• For whom will be pitching?

• If it’s not for the Pirates, will the team come to regret how it handled this situation?

As to the first question, multiple teams already are reported to be interested. They include Baltimore, the closest team to his home in Monkton, Md., Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Texas. Presumably, the Pirates are interested, but they’ve been as mum as Burnett.

What’s more, the field of suitors figures to grow. Since retirement was clearly in his thoughts, the belief is Burnett would not want more than a two-year deal and might even prefer a single season. Along with his distinguished pitching the past two seasons, that makes him an attractive candidate for almost any contender. It’s hard to imagine a team with five starters better than Burnett.

As for the second question, the cry from so many is the Pirates did the right thing. After all, they’re small market and Burnett is looking for big-market money. It’s almost a reflexive opinion. Even to some of the experts.

Appearing on The David Todd Show on 970 ESPN Wednesday, Keith Law said the Pirates did the right thing in not pursuing Burnett. Working on the theory that it would cost them about $15 million to secure the services of Burnett for 2014, Law said the Pirates could not afford to put such a large percentage of payroll -- about $80 million -- in one player.

That thinking would appear to make perfect sense, except for this: Other teams make similar signings.

Playing in a smaller market than Pittsburgh, the Milwaukee Brewers gave Kyle Lohse a three-year $33 million contract last season and Matt Garza a four-year $50 million contract this season. If the Brewers can afford to pay two pitchers -- at the same time -- more money than the Pirates ever have paid one -- at any time -- why can’t the Pirates come up with $15 million -- for one year -- for Burnett?

If Burnett was being honest about how enjoyable his time was in Pittsburgh, give him reason to come back.

Is he a sure thing for 2015? Absolutely not. No one is. Baseball is a crazy game when it comes to year-to-year performance.

But know this: Burnett was a horse for the Pirates for two seasons, one of the best starters in the National League. Not only had he shown no serious signs of decline, he was getting better at age 36. His K/9 not only led all NL starters, it was a career high. Just as significantly, he had become far more expert in getting ground balls than at any time in his career. He led qualified starters in that category, too.

The man gets strikeouts and ground balls just about as well as any pitcher. What is there not to like about that?

Here’s one more thing: If the Pirates, as we are told almost daily, have all these terrific young players coming to fill up their roster and their win column, the team is going to have a lot of inexpensive talent in its future. Why not splurge -- just this one time -- and build a bridge to that future.

The Pirates rotation as of today is nothing special. It includes Wandy Rodriguez, coming off an arm injury that cost him the final 16 weeks of the 2013 season, and Edinson Volquez, a serious reclamation project. The Pirates need better starters.

Just last week, FanGraphs.com suggested the Pirates rotation was in the bottom third of MLB. Considering the team’s questionable offense, that’s not likely going to do it.

The Pirates have an additional $20 million to $25 million in national TV money coming in every year at least through this decade. Attendance is up. Ticket prices are up. The money is there. It appears, though, the will is not.

Team president Frank Coonelly is on record as saying when attendance grew so would payroll. The Pirates are not coming close to living up to the spirit of that promise and perhaps not even to the letter of it. Shame on them!

It’s not too late. The Pirates need to make Burnett put up or shut up about how much he liked pitching for them and living in Pittsburgh. Make him an offer he can’t refuse.


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