As the off season winds down and pitchers and catchers get set to report to their training camps, the New York Yankees find themselves in need of a left handed bat off the bench. In contrast to that need is an unexpected abundance of starting pitching on the team’s roster after the mid January acquisitions of Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda, which has forced 35 year old right hander A.J. Burnett out of the top five starters on the Yankees’ depth chart.
Given the availability of several left handed bats on the free agent market, presumably at a reduced price this late into the off season, the Yankees are likely unconcerned with getting a return on a trade involving a starting pitcher, at least in comparison with such a move freeing up salary that can then be used to buy a Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui or Raul Ibanez type player.
I previously compared Burnett’s situation in New York to the circumstances in which Carlos Zambrano found himself with the Chicago Cubs earlier this off season. If you’re capable of remembering all the way back to the beginning of the new year, the Cubs managed to move Zambrano to the Miami Marlins in exchange for his replacement in the rotation, Chris Volstad. However, such a deal was only achieved through Chicago’s willingness to pay the Marlins $16.45 million of the $18 million that Zambrano is owed for the 2012 season.
The Yankees will be hoping for more salary relief than that to come from any trade involving Burnett, and presumably they’d be willing to forgo the semblance of a useful return to facilitate it. Nonetheless, with $16.5 million owed to Burnett for each of the next two years, along with a no trade clause that allows him to block deals to a third of the teams in the Majors, he isn’t exactly the type of extraneous asset that’s easily traded.
Nonetheless, there should be a market for his services. Over the last two years Burnett has had inflated ERAs (that is to say his xFIP and SIERAs were lower) above five while still pitching close to 200 innings per season. In 2011, he was in the top third of the league among qualified starters for ground ball rate and strike out rate, and despite a high walk rate, Burnett’s strike out to walk ratio is similar to that of Gio Gonzalez’s.
Of course, no one would dare suggest that the salary due Burnett over the next two years is a good deal. In fact, the right handed starter has been a completely miserable signing for the Yankees over the first three years of his contract, offering the team $28.2 million worth of value for the actual price of $49.5 million. However, if the Yankees are willing to eat $20 million of the $33 million remaining on his deal, Burnett could pitch exactly as he had over the last two seasons (the two worst of his career), and still be a worthwhile addition to a team in which he wouldn’t be blocking a younger pitcher with higher upside from entering the rotation.
MLB Trade Rumors has brought up the Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics and Pittsburgh Pirates as potential landing spots for Burnett. All four of these teams have good reason to be interested. However, I wonder if another team that wouldn’t immediately spring to mind might be in a better place to properly use Burnett.
It appears as though the San Francisco Giants will start the season with Barry Zito as their fifth starter. There’s more to my argument, but let’s pause here to let that sink in.
Okay, ready to continue?
While Burnett was able to get back to where he once was in inducing ground balls last season, his home run rate has grown for three years straight.
Looking at his increasing inability to keep the ball in the park and considering the park factors at AT&T Park in San Francisco, and suddenly regression isn’t the only thing that would be expected to lower Burnett’s insanely high 17% HR/FB rate from last year.
Burnett proved last season that he’s still able to induce swinging strikes and minimize good contact as his numbers returned to career norms after a brief vacation during his second year in a Yankees uniform. To me, that suggests that the stuff which has drawn him Nuke Laloosh comparisons throughout his years in the big leagues is still present. With the Giants, Burnett could easily finish out the final two years of his contract as a three wins above replacement pitcher.
Including the money owed to Aaron Rowand, the team’s final payroll will most likely end up at something close to the $130 million that San Francisco’s front office was talking about as early as November. While the Burnett addition would push the Giants over budget, it would be for a deal for which even Brian Sabean couldn’t overpay.