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.

Comments (14)

  1. I love Fangraphs, but I can’t understand how you can look at cases like Burnett and Morrow and not stop to question whether there’s something seriously wrong with using FIP to value pitchers.

    FIP might be better for predicting future performance, but it is terrible for evaluating how much a pitcher has been worth.

    I think Baseball Reference’s methodology is much better for evaluating this. Burnett’s bWAR with the Yankees is 3.4, with 2.8 of that coming in the first year. This suggests that Burnett has been worth closer to $15m during his time with the Yankees and about $3m in the last two years.

    The rest of the post is fine, but if the Yankees manage to eat less than $25m of the contract I think they’ll have done well.

    • Consider 95% of the league that it does work for, and not just Burnett, Morrow and Cain.

      • best stat for measuring a starting pitcher? Wins. You stat geeks can try and re-invent the wheel but the wheel we have works fine. Thanks.

        • Best stat for measuring a team is wins. A starting pitcher only has control over so much of the game, while there are other elements that could conspire to make him lose a game. Poor offensive support, poor defense, etc.

          See Ken Johnson circa 1964 – throws a 9 inning no hitter and loses the game. So is his “loss” rather than a “win” the most telling stat of his performance?

          • It’s true that sometimes individual performance outlies results but as any statistician understands, over time; the numbers do not lie.
            If the fundamental measure of success is winning, how can anyone truly justify throwing out the metric that describes that fundamental success?
            Basically, my point is; AJ Burnett sucks. He managed to win 11 games pitching in front of a Hall of Fame lineup.

        • That’s a troll

          • no, sorry if I disagree with you all and; while I do find the stat chat to be quite interestin, I’m not a troll and I do believe that fundamentally in the context of athletic competition…wins are the ultimate measure.

        • You are on the wrong website if you think for a second that Pitcher Win’s are “the wheel”.

          • You know what’s really interesting about wins?
            The pitchers that populate the MLB top 20 list of wins on a season by season basis remains remarkably consistent both within the group and with the general consensus of who the best pitchers are. I guess a stathead would say there is a high degree of correlation between the two values. Weird huh?
            You know what’s even more weird? That anyone would argue that Burnett is anything more than a space filler at this point in his career.
            When you get to the point where you are dissecting metrics in order to counter that argument, the reasonable minds have to object.

  2. Basically: AJ Burberry, not as bad as you’d think.

  3. AJ “Batting Practice” Burnett: Not as bad as some others

    It’s the contract that makes him look like the worst pitcher in Yankees history. That and the last two years.

  4. Brandon Morrow and AJ Burnett are not the same issue with FIP. Burnett gives up alot of HR’s while Morrow gives up alot of hard contact within the park. AJ could actually be a decent #3 or 4 in a pitchers park.

  5. I missed the part where Burnett was a worthwhile upgrade over Zito.

    Both have been pretty equally bad for the last 3 years. I really don’t see the need for San Fran to trade and pay for a shitty 5th start when they already have one.

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