Could .AJ B.urnett be a Brave in 2014 (Photo Courtesy Scott Rovak/ USA Today)

Will The Braves Land A.J. Burnett

The news that A.J. Burnett would pitch in 2014 has the rumor mill in full throat. Most are saying Baltimore is his perfect fit but could Atlanta sneak in and sign him instead?

 Why would we want  A.J. Burnett?

Prior to the 2009 season Braves GM offered A.J. a long term high dollar contract, almost the same contract he ended up signing with the Yankees. At that time I was vocally against signing him for that kind of money and that length of time.  He was essentially a 500 pitcher with a 1.284 WHIP, a 3.84 ERA and not worth what at the time was ACE impact arm money. I was right. As a Yankee he put up a 4.79 ERA and a 1.447 WHIP. The Yankees traded (gave) him to Pittsburgh for two unknown prospects and sent along $20M of the $31M he was still owed on his contract.  In Pittsburgh however Burnett became a different pitcher.

The Pirates under Clint Hurdle emphasized ground ball pitching and pitching coach Ray Searage  convinced Burnett to buy into it.  Suddenly he was a completely different pitcher. As Jeff Sullivan wrote over at Fangraphs today:

Burnett seemed to turn his career around when he landed with the Pirates a couple seasons ago. Over that span, he made 61 starts. Among starters, he ranked in the top tenth in WAR. He was also in the top tenth in adjusted FIP and xFIP, and only three other starters generated a higher groundball rate. If ace pitchers get strikeouts while limiting walks and dingers, Burnett has recently done two of the three, and it’s not like his walks have been out of control. Around his Pirates numbers, you find the names of other really good pitchers.

As a Pirate Burnett produced his lowest WHIP since 2007 (1.228) and turned himself into a groundball specialist. In 2012 his 56.9% GB rate was fourth in MLB just ahead of Tim Hudson’s 55.5%. Just to prove it wasn’t a fluke he posted a 56.5% rate in 2013 good enough for second in MLB.  He remains a strikeout pitcher as well posting a 9.85 K/9, making him fourth in MLB. Think of it this way, he’s Huddy with a bigger arm or Cliff Lee with less control. He took the ball every fifth day last year and since 2008 has made 30 or more starts every year averaging 6 1/3 innings per start. That’s a significantly different pitcher that the one that pitched in Toronto and New York.  He was also a mentor to the young Pirate staff. To a man they credited him with improving their game and helping them settle into their role. That too is a different A.J. from the emotional, almost petulant pitcher we saw in Florida and Toronto.  That’s why we would want him now.

Would AJ come to the ATL?

Let’s check off things that might influence the 37 year old Burnett’s decision.  Matches (my opinion of course) in bold.

  1. Burnett lives near Baltimore and has said that he wants to be near his family, he’s had some family issues that make that need even higher on the list. That would limit his choices to east coast;  Orioles, Nationals, Phillies, Mets Braves and a return to the Pirates.
  2. Like most players he wants a chance to win. That clears the field a bit; Pirates, Nationals, Orioles Braves.
  3. He’d prefer a pitcher’s ballpark or at least one that didn’t favor hitters a lot. Okay let’s look at park factors.
RUNS HR H 2B 3B BB
PNC Park (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) .907 0.679 .989 .858 0.688 .881
Turner Field (Atlanta, Georgia) .956 0.925 .987 .924 1.25 .945
Nationals Park (Washington, D.C.) 1.013 0.804 1.089 1.051 0.577 .966
Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Baltimore, Maryland) 1.057 1.275 .988 .862 0.636 1.011
Park Factor compares the rate of stats at home vs. the rate of stats on the road. A rate higher than 1.000 favors the hitter. Below 1.000 favors the pitcher. (from ESPN.com)

4.   He’ll want a good defense behind him. Braves, Nationals, Orioles, Pirates

Wren always get his man. . . eventually

One thing you have to say about Frank Wren, he’s determined. Those of you who’ve paid attention since he took over will know that once he “likes a player a lot” he never stops trying to acquire him. He ignores records and trends when he sees something in a player that he likes and given the chance he signs him. Last year it was B.J. Upton but prior to that he tracked and signed Joe Mather, Juan Francisco and Rodrigo Lopez. . .okay not great examples of success but they are all players he openly admired and tried to sign /for a long time. So is Burnett. On top of that if this were a fishing story, AJ is the “one that got away.” I think that still irks Wren a little and might tempt him to try again.

What would it take?

Burnett almost retired this year so a long term deal isn’t likely on his radar. If Wren decides to go after him something like two years $19M would – barring someone offering stupid money – probably do it. That’s not excessive based on his recent history and today’s market.  The Braves should still have that money available within their payroll target.

That’s A Wrap

When I heard that Burnett was going to pitch, I wondered how that would change the Pirates off season. Then I heard he was open to pitching elsewhere and immediately envisioned the GM grabbing frantically for his phone. That isn’t a shot at our GM just an opinion based on what he’s done since taking over. Then I though I hope he doesn’t followed by – let me check myself – then a Hmmm I should reconsider that opinion.  Burnett is not an Ace impact arm, he walks too many and can have bouts of wildness. However,  he does offer all of things our rotation lost when Hudson went to the Giants plus 200 strikeouts and 200 or so innings. His groundball rate would change the look of the rotation; currently Kris Medlen’s 45.3% leads  with Julio Teheran at 38.6% and Mike Minor at 35%. Alex wood had a 49.1% rate but didn’t throw enough innings to be on the qualified list. It would also mean  lots of fun for Andrelton Simmons at shortstop and Freddie Freeman at first and that can’t be bad. The maturity he showed with the young Pirate staff would benefit Teheran and Woody as well as taking the spotlight off of Brandon Beachy in his first year back after TJ surgery. As much as I was against the original bid to sign him, I’d be happy to see him wearing a Tomahawk next year.

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