A.J. Burnett and Desperation in Free Agency
A.J. Burnett's announcement yesterday that he would pitch in 2014 has given teams the perfect reminder not to succumb to offseason desperation.
Burnett's availability has put him on the Baltimore Orioles' radar, after an extremely quiet winter that has left fans frustrated at their team's lack of dealing at a time in which the division is more open than it's been in years. It seems like a perfect fit: The Orioles are in dire need of a veteran starter and Burnett lives in nearby Monkton, Maryland. He's also coming off of an impressive, two-year stint with the Pirates that rejuvenated the tail-end of his career, striking out 8.9 batters per nine innings and leaving Pittsburgh with a 3.41 ERA.
We've seen this movie before, unfortunately: Teams put themselves in a free-agent hole for the majority of the offseason until they suddenly wake up and decide to deal, either to appease fans or actually address glaring holes in their roster. The Miami Dolphins provide a recent cautionary tale in their five-year, $60 million signing of wide receiver Mike Wallace before this NFL season, a contract that included $27 million in guaranteed money for a player coming off one of his worst statistical seasons. Predictably, Wallace didn't end up being the top-receiver that Miami had hoped for this season: He finished with 930 yards, good for 28th in the league, scoring just five touchdowns.
The Orioles need to be careful not to let their nerves get the better of them and fall into a similar trap with Burnett. Any potential deal with the 37-year-old will surely be short-term, but that could actually backfire if Baltimore decides to bet big bucks on Burnett's immediate viability. He commanded $16.5 million last season -- half of which was paid for by his previous team, the New York Yankees -- and some are so desperate for a big-name signing that they're throwing out drastically inflated numbers such as one year, $15 million.
Before the Orioles go putting all their eggs in Burnett's basket, let's remember that for all his talent, this pitcher is also a basket-case with a less-than-stellar reputation for facing hitters in the American League East. Articles like this one advocating Burnett as the expensive Band-Aid the Orioles need conveniently gloss over his abysmal three years with the New York Yankees, a period that the team and its fans would like to forget. For their $82.5 million investment, the Yankees got a 34-35 record and 4.79 ERA. In his last year in New York, before being shipped off to Pittsburgh, Burnett yielded 31 home runs in 32 starts and seemed to mentally break down in the middle of games.
Burnett's performance with the Yankees is more relevant to the Orioles than his time with the Pirates precisely because it speaks to his inability to pitch on the big stage. His stats in Pittsburgh are all well and good until you remember that facing National League Central hitters doesn't inform how he would fare should he return to the AL East and be counted on as an ace or No. 2-starter in a playoff run.
Unfortunately, a wide-open free agent market could ultimately cost the Orioles millions, should they choose to pursue Burnett. Pittsburgh is sure to make a run at retaining him, while the Phillies, Royals, and Rangers are all said to have an interest, which would drive up the price of a one-year contract. Baltimore General Manager Dan Duquette said last week that the team still has around $17 million to work with this offseason, and the Orioles are feeling enough pressure to make a big move that they could very well offer the remaining slice of the pie to Burnett -- a high price to pay for a temporary solution whose mental and divisional track record doesn't bode well for immediate return.
(Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson.)
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