A.J. Burnett's elbow strain and Joe Panik's bad back could have serious implications on the National League wild-card race for the Pirates and Giants.
As the spotlight shifts away from the July 31 trade deadline, two injuries to NL All-Stars have come to light that could have a significant impact on the league's playoff picture. An MRI taken on Monday revealed that Pirates starter A.J. Burnett has suffered a strained flexor tendon in his right elbow, while Giants second baseman Joe Panik was placed on the disabled list with lower back inflammation.
For the 38-year-old Burnett, whose current 3.07 ERA and 3.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio both rank as career bests, the diagnosis of the strain actually counts as good news, as it was feared that he had torn his ulnar collateral ligament. Given that he has already declared that this will be the final season of his 17-year major league career, that would have meant that he had thrown his last pitch, and likewise had his flexor tendon been damaged enough to require surgery. Instead, he received a platelet-rich plasma injection and could be back in four weeks, giving him the chance to write a few more lines in the final chapter of his career.
After wearing out his welcome in the Bronx, Burnett rejuvenated that career in Pittsburgh in 2012–13, helping to end the team's 20-year playoff drought. He returned to the Pirates this past winter after a rough '14 spent with the Phillies; pitching through a hernia on a team heading nowhere, he threw 213 2/3 innings, his highest total since '08, but was cuffed for a 4.59 ERA, leading the league in earned runs allowed (109), walks (96) and losses (18). Declining a $12.75 million player option and effectively taking a pay cut from $15 million (including deferred money) to $8.5 million via a one-year deal, he chose to reunite with manager Clint Hurdle (with whom he had feuded over not getting to start Game 5 of the 2013 Division Series) and pitching coach Ray Searage.
Searage has been a key figure in Burnett's resurgence, as the coach encouraged the veteran to emphasize his sinker instead of his four-seam fastball, a switch which has helped him offset his declining fastball velocity by generating more ground balls and curbing a soaring home-run rate. Where he allowed 1.25 homers per nine and a 4.79 ERA during his three years with the Yankees ('09–11), he has cut that to 0.61 with a 3.32 ERA in three seasons with the Pirates.
Though he didn’t appear in the All-Star Game itself, Burnett pitched his way onto the squad via a stellar first half featuring a 2.11 ERA. He’s been knocked around in each of his three starts since then, however, yielding 32 hits and 19 runs (18 earned) in 16 innings and hitting five batters, one more than he had in his previous 18 turns. In his most recent start on July 30 against the Reds, he struggled to get his fastball out of the 87–88 mph range in the early innings as he battled elbow pain. He was able to restore his velocity, but at a cost. Via MLB.com's Tom Singer:
Near the end of that 4 1/3-inning outing in which the Reds roughed him up for 10 hits and eight runs, Burnett got his fastball back to 94 mph and got his breaking pitch to buckle knees. He had started to pitch angry, paying no mind to possibly blowing out his arm.
"It was a matter of pretty much getting fed up with it. I just let it go, see what's left," he said. "I was, 'All right, if it goes, it goes. Let it fly.' Enough was enough at that point. I'm not coming out of a game unless I can't pick up the ball."
The Pirates placed Burnett on the disabled list on Friday and will fill his rotation spot with J.A. Happ, who was acquired from the Mariners as insurance just before the 4 p.m. ET trade deadline. The 32-year-old lefty, who had been traded to Seattle for Michael Saunders last December, has posted a 4.64 ERA and 4.07 FIP in 108 2/3 innings; once again, he's been unable to keep the ball in the park, though his current rate of 1.1 homers per nine is still below last year's 1.3 per nine mark. If there's good news, it's that his current 1.26 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio is a career best, so perhaps that homer rate and his .320 batting average on balls in play will normalize with the change of scenery.
Even so, the Pirates' rotation has taken a significant hit with the loss of Burnett. Gerrit Cole (2.29 ERA, 2.64 FIP) has pitched up to his pedigree, and Francisco Liriano (2.92 ERA, 2.94 FIP) has continued his resurgence under Searage, but Jeff Locke (4.21 ERA, 3.74 FIP) and Charlie Morton (4.19 ERA, 4.18 FIP) have been replacement level or worse. The trio of Happ, Locke and Morton has combined for -0.1 WAR, and Locke has managed a quality start in just 40% of his turns.
At 61–43, the Pirates have a four-game cushion for the top wild card spot, but without further fortification to the rotation—to say nothing of an infield that's likely going to be without Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer into early September—they can hardly feel secure. Their odds of catching the Cardinals, whom they trail by 5 1/2 in the NL Central race, appear even more slim. Perhaps general manager Neal Huntington find an upgrade or two during the waiver period, as he did by adding Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau in late August 2013.
At 57–48, Panik's Giants are half a game out of the second wild card slot and three games back in the NL West race. The 24-year-old second baseman, who helped the Giants to a championship as a rookie and made his first All-Star team as well this year, had battled back stiffness last week. After missing games on Tuesday and Wednesday, he returned on Friday, then went 2-for-5 with a pair of doubles to help spoil Cole Hamels’s Rangers debut on Saturday. But even as manager Bruce Bochy praised him after that game—"Unbelievable how he gutted it out," he told reporters—it was clear that Panik could be out longer.
Panik has proven to be an outstanding table-setter from the second spot in the lineup, hitting .308/.374/443 with seven homers and a 132 OPS+, which trails only Buster Posey (152), Brandon Belt and Hunter Pence (136 each, the latter in a much smaller sample size) among Giants hitters. His loss is yet another blow to a lineup that has rarely been whole this year due to the injuries of Pence and leftfielder Nori Aoki, not to mention the on-and-off bilateral knee woes of centerfielder Angel Pagan, who has been the lineup's least productive hitter via a 75 OPS+ (.264/.297/.316). Meanwhile, a rotation that spent most of the first half without Matt Cain and Jake Peavy is now without Tim Hudson and Tim Lincecum, though the July 30 trade with the Reds for Mike Leake should provide a boost in that department.
Panik left the Giants in Atlanta to return to San Francisco for MRI and CT scans to determine the source of his back inflammation. In his place, Ehire Adrianza and Kelby Tomlinson will compete for playing time, according to Bochy. Adrianza started Monday's game, but the 25-year-old switch-hitter owns just a .217/.266/.294 line in 157 PA spread over the last three seasons. Tomlinson, a 25-year-old righty, was called up on Monday to take Panik’s roster spot. A 12th-round 2011 pick out of Texas Tech, he's been considered the organization's fastest player for most of his minor-league tenure, but he wasn't even ranked among the team's top 30 prospects this spring according to Baseball America, as his career had stalled at Double A Richmond. After batting just .268/.340/.323 there last season, he got off to a hotter start this year and has now hit .321/.376/.414 with 21 steals in 438 PA split between Richmond (where he's totaled 223 games across three seasons) and a 33-game intro at Triple A Sacramento. He did get his major league career off on the right foot with a pinch-hit single in the 12th inning of Monday's 9–8 loss to the Braves.
If Panik is back around the minimum 15 days, his injury could prove to be a mere blip on the radar, but if he's out longer—particularly with Pagan still ailing—the injury could make it more difficult for the Giants to catch the Dodgers and the Cubs, who hold a bare half-game lead on the second wild card spot. Stay tuned.