Yanks simply had to unload Burnett
Five thoughts on the trade of Yankees starter A.J. Burnett -- and about $18 million -- to the Pirates for two minor leaguers, outfielder Exicardo Cayones and right-handed pitcher Diego Moreno:
The reality of Burnett as a Yankee had grown into an untenable situation. With New York's additions of starters Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, no reasonable argument could be made that Burnett was still one of the Yankees' five best starters. He had a fine 2009 season, his first in New York on his five-year, $82.5 million contract, when he went 13-9 with a 4.04 ERA and 1.40 WHIP over 207 innings; his ERA+ that year was a 114, suggesting that his ERA (when adjusted for league and ballpark) was 14 percent better than the average pitcher.
In the last two seasons, however, Burnett struggled mightily, going 21-26 with a 5.20 ERA and 1.47 WHIP in 377 innings. Among qualifiers, his ERA was the second-worst in baseball, trailing only Boston's John Lackey (5.26), and his WHIP was fourth-worst.
Burnett became the recipient of the fans' boos and the tabloids' jeers. Questions about his status bogged down each of manager Joe Girardi's daily press briefings. He is too overpriced to be a reliever (something he has done only five times in his career anyway). That news leaked of his having rejected a trade to the Angels only would have fueled the Bronx cheers had he remained in New York.
Simply put, Burnett had to be traded and doing so cleared some payroll -- the Pirates will pay about $13 million remaining on his contract over the next two seasons -- which will help facilitate the Yankees adding two more players (rumored to be outfielder Raul Ibañez and third baseman Eric Chavez).
Despite all that, there's a compelling case to be made that this is a good trade for the Pirates -- more on why below -- but it's also fair to speculate that his remaining in New York would have been a bigger negative for the Yankees than his pitching in Pittsburgh can be a positive for the Pirates, a fact reflected by New York's willingness to pay nearly 60 percent of his remaining salary to pitch elsewhere.
What cost is too steep for a championship? To the Yankees, that answer has historically been "none," and Burnett was certainly important in New York's 2009 World Series title.
That was his aforementioned one good season in the Bronx, even if his postseason that year was a bit uneven. Burnett made three really good starts to go along with two clunkers, highlighted by his World Series Game 2 win in which he outdueled Pedro Martinez to beat the Phillies 3-1, allowing one run on four hits and two walks while striking out nine in seven innings. The game's significance was even greater: Martinez was showing flashes of his old self and the Phillies had won Game 1 in New York; overcoming a 2-0 deficit when losing the first two games at home would have been extremely difficult.
Can that one shining moment (and season) overshadow two frustrating seasons? Mostly, but not entirely. His performance was sufficiently poor these last two years that it won't be soon forgotten, but should Burnett ever pitch in Yankee Stadium again, he still ought to receive more cheers than boos -- or at least a whipped-cream pie to the face -- as a thank you for his contributions to the franchise's 27th title.
The Pirates sought a veteran starter this year but were turned down by two of the top three major-league free agents, Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt. They weren't going to offer enough for the consensus No. 1 available starter, C.J. Wilson, who received $77.5 million for five seasons of work, nor the $82.5 million it would have required for Burnett's original deal. As it is, the $13 million Pittsburgh is paying Burnett makes him their highest-paid player.
This trade, therefore, is a creative, albeit risky, solution to that predicament of finding a high-upside starting pitcher within the parameters of their budget. Pittsburgh is effectively acquiring a pitcher from the outlet store -- that he's not in mint condition makes him affordable.
It's a similar concept to the Athletics' signing of Cuban outfielder Yoenis Céspedes; Oakland couldn't afford a premium power hitter on the open market but it can pay mid-range dollars for one who has the tools to be a big slugger but doesn't have the experience that proves he'll be sure investment. Burnett might be a comparatively safer bet -- slightly -- because he does have a track record of success, even if he is now 35 and a few years removed from his peak.
If nothing else, Burnett has been recently healthy, making at least 32 starts and throwing at least 186 innings in each of the last four seasons, twice eclipsing 200 and throwing as many as 221 1/3 innings in 2008. In those same four years the Pirates have had only two pitchers make 32 starts in a season and had only three seasons in which a pitcher has reached at least 186 innings. As a team in 2012, Pittsburgh's starters threw an NL-low 923 1/3 innings, besting only the AL's Orioles.
A couple factors align to provide Burnett a better chance of success in Pittsburgh than New York:
• The most obvious is that NL lineups are generally less fierce with the pitcher batting instead of a designated hitter.
• The NL Central just witnessed the offseason defection of its two biggest home-run threats, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. (Ryan Braun's possible 50-game suspension would have no effect without several rainouts, as the Pirates don't play the Brewers until the latter's 52nd game of the season.)
• Last year Burnett's career-worst rate (1.5 HR/9) occurred because 17 percent of his flyballs allowed went for homers, as compared to a 9.8 percent league average, which sabermetrics shows is, in part, the result of bad luck.
• His xFIP -- Expected Fielding-Independent Pitching, which is essentially ERA adjusted for average defense and an average home run-to-flyball rate -- was a respectable 3.86 last season, which ranked 24th out of 42 qualified AL starters.
But the news is not all good:
• Though three of Burnett's four-worst seasons in terms or rate of home runs allowed have come in his three seasons in which new Yankee Stadium has been his home ballpark, his home-road splits don't support the notion that only his homefield is to blame. In his three years as a Yankee, Burnett allowed 42 homers at home and 39 homers on the road.
• There is a troubling indicator in that Burnett is allowing a greater sheer number of flyballs. For five seasons from 2003 through 2007, more than 50 percent of his batted balls allowed were groundballs; his four most recent seasons have all had a groundball percentage below 50 and as low as 43.
The spring decisions for Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild just got a bit easier. With CC Sabathia entrenched as the club's ace and Pineda, Kuroda and Ivan Nova slotting in the 2-3-4 spots of the rotation in some order, the club was faced with the burden of choosing a fifth starter out of Burnett, Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes. Now one of those three is off the roster entirely, and Hughes' past success in the bullpen and arm ailments from a year ago make him the likely candidate to return to relieving.
This deal also clears the way for the futures of the Yankees pitching prospects, Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, who are slated to spend all or at least most of 2012 in the minors but could be rotation-ready in 2013.