Monday, February 20, 2012

Trade Analysis: AJ Burnett to the Pittsburgh Pirates

Here on MAMBINO, we like to try and do Instant Trade Analysis posts, as to collect and document the immediate reactions that we have to impactful transactions in both baseball and the NBA. While time always gives us the objectivity to better reflect on any trade, the visceral reaction that we have to player movement as fans is always such a fascinating part of any trading deadline. Also, it gets us a lot of hits.

Yes, we blew it on the A.J. Burnett deal. But my reflections have gone largely unchanged since this was a reported deal on Friday. So here we go:

New York Yankees get: minor league outfielder Exicardo Cayones, and pitcher Diego Moreno

Pittsburgh Pirates get: RHP AJ Burnett, $20 million dollars

Just writing that seems preposterous. One team is paying another team over $20 million dollars (!) just to get rid of a guy. I don't care if Selena Gomez is in your starting rotation, $20 million to essentially get rid of a player is unbelievable.

Let's cover the basic reasons why the Yankees would pay such an outrageous price to get rid of Burnett - in short, he sucks. He sucks big time, if you want to be more specific. His notorious career with the Yankees began with a 5-year, $82 million dollar deal in the same winter that the Yankees essentially bought the 2009 title, along with the signings of future 2009 ALCS MVP CC Sabathia and 2009 AL MVP runner-up Mark Teixeria. Burnett went on to a 3-year Yankees career ending with a 34-35 record, starting at least 32 games a season, with an average of 171 strikeouts in 195 innings. That's where the highlights end, however. He had an ugly 4.79 ERA, 1.43 WHIP and nearly 4 walks per nine innings. He pitched to a 93 on an ERA+ scale, which essentially means he was a below average pitcher in comparison with the other starters in the league. His postseason pitching was even worse than his regular season starts. He threw to a 5.08 ERA with a 1.41 WHIP, 5 walks per nine innings and a 2-2 record. Though he largely pitched well in 4 of his 7 postseason starts, the three games his team lost, he gave up at least 5 runs in 6 innings or less.

As for the deal itself, the Yankees are paying a staggering $20 million dollars of the $33 million still owed to Burnett. The prospects that the Yankees got back would are considered fringe, though with a small amount of upside. The word is that Cayones can hit for average, but nothing more than that. Moreno supposedly can touch the mid to high 90's on the speed gun, but doesn't have the control to make much of an impact in the big leagues. Obviously, the prospects weren't the main motivation for this trade.

Further statistical analysis really isn't necessary in my mind. After watching a good portion of Burnett's starts over the past 3 years, anyone would be able to tell you that this guy wasn't cut out to be the number 2 or 3 starter in the Yankees (or anyone's, really) rotation. Though he's always had the talent and the raw power to be one of the best starters in the game (he threw a no-hitter in Florida almost a decade ago), his lack of competitive fire, emotional stability and infuriating inconsistency led to the Yankees finding almost any way they could to drop him from the roster. It wasn't so much that the money was a problem, or that he was something less than a mediocre starting MLB pitcher - it was that the fear of needing to depend on him for any game of consequence was not a risk New York management was willing to take. Last postseason, the chatter in the New York media, as well as amongst Yankees fans, before Burnett's start in the ALDS against the Tigers would have made you think that Ron Guidry (...2011 Ron Guidry) was getting the start instead. The terror in the voices of the pinstripe faithful was tantamount to a predestined a Yankees loss. AJ Burnett is a average MLB pitcher whose performance could never match his potential, but more importantly his contract.


Even with how wildly ineffective he was in the Bronx, and the endless frustration he caused for the management, coaching and of course, the fans, was this a trade that never should have happened. Should the Yankees have...kept AJ Burnett? I know that blogs can't be burned to the ground, but if they could, there's probably a dozen people reading MAMBINO right now that would torch this son of a bitch to the ground, just for the sacrilege of any statement that mildly supports Burnett. But let's look at the evidence before MAMBINO is turned into a smoldering pile of digital ashes.

After months of radio silence, the Yankees finally made their big winter move last month by pulling off a blockbuster trade for potential young ace in the making, Michael Pineda, as well as signing former Dodger Hiroki Kuroda (which BockerKnocker and I covered here and here). In one day, the Yankees completely remade their starting rotation, bringing in two starters that would theoretically occupy the 2 and 3 spots in the rotation. For the first time in several seasons, the Yankees faced an uncommon problem of surplus starting pitching. Along with Sabathia, Kuroda and Pineda, the Yanks had second-year man Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia, prospects Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos and of course, Burnett competing for two starting spots. Obviously management saw AJ as the most disposable player, so when the Pirates presented them with an opportunity to unload Burnett, Yanks management didn't flinch.

As many baseball writers see it, the five starters will be Sabathia, Pineda, Kuroda, Nova and Phil Hughes. But with 4 of those 5 pitchers, Sabathia is the only one without a significant concern attached to his prospective performance. Along with the questions that are generally related with a young pitcher, Nova just finished pitching over 180 innings (both major and minor leagues combined), nearly 20 more than his career high. New import Pineda badly tailed off in the second half after a white-hot start to the season. Both he and Kuroda, a 35 year-old who has spent his MLB career in the pitcher-friendly NL West, will have to rapidly adjust to the brutally competitive AL East. Phil Hughes was the only Yankees starter even worse than AJ Burnett last season, pitching to a 5.79 ERA in only 72 innings. The Yankees struck scrap heap gold with a stunningly adequate performance from oft-injured veteran Freddy Garcia last year, but cannot in anyway count on a repeat act.

If everything were to go wrong for the Yankees next year, they'd be left with a bunch of pitchers that could easily be just as bad as Burnett was in 2011. Besides Sabathia, all the starters have so many question marks attached to their names and I think it's inevitable that one or two of them succumb to the suspect natures of their games. Why not keep Burnett on as insurance? Even at his worst with the Yankees, he was a mediocre to slightly-below average major league starter who, most importantly, could provide innings. Knowing how suspectible 4 of your 5 starting pitchers, if you're Yankees' management, don't you keep Burnett on board as a simple insurance policy? Garcia will inherit that role now, but to much less dependability. This isn't to say that the Yankees are the only squad with plenty of variables in their starting rotation; nearly every club in the majors have those issues. However, the Yankees were stopped in last year's playoffs because of their lack of starting rotation depth. Losing is never acceptable in New York, but another championship-less season due to the same problems that plagued last year's squad will cause the Yanks to undergo even more scrutiny than usual.

Keeping all this in mind, this was still a solid trade for the Yankees, and a great one for the Pirates. Though I have my own opinions about what a Yankees spending cap means, the team decided that they could not exceed an arbitrary salary ceiling they had set for themselves this winter. To "free up money" from their self-imposed limit, the Yanks had to essentially buy-out Burnett through a trade, in order to sign two low-salary veterans, Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez (whose signings appear to be imminent). Though I'm mystified as to how paying nearly $20 million dollars to buy-out a $33 million dollar contract gives the team the payroll flexibility to sign two players who won't cost $4 million between the two of them, I suppose I'll leave the accounting to the professionals. Either way, the Yankees needed the bench reinforcements that Chavez and Ibanez will give them, and if the only way they could get it was through disposing of Burnett, I'm all for it.

As far as Burnett himself, he's an emotional player and someone who wouldn't have been happy being a long reliever or a spot starter. His displeasure and "work ethic" could have affected the young pitchers on the staff negatively, so this move is as much addition by subtraction as it is anything else.

The Pirates get a hell of a deal here. For a team who is constantly spurned by higher-profile free agent pitchers (Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt, just this winter), Pittsburgh gave up two so-so prospects for what amounts to a two-year deal worth $13 million dollars for AJ Burnett. The Pirates would consider this a steal on the open market, so in that respect, the trade is immediately successful. Burnett will be the number one guy in Pittsburgh, and hopefully the newly invigorated crowds at PNC Park will have a contagious effect on a guy who's skated by on natural ability rather than any desire to try and get better. Burnett badly needed a change of scenery from the high-pressure New York atmosphere, and a fan base like Pittsburgh will be happy to have any pitcher whose name rings of familiarity (what, Charlie Morton not doing it for you?). I don't expect him to suddenly morph into the pitcher New York paid him to be, but I will expect that in the weaker NL Central without any expecations relative to his time on the Yankees, that he'll be a much better player.

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