With Spring Training just around the corner, the Pittsburgh Pirates have announced that they preparing to enter the 2014 season without starting pitcher A.J. Burnett. Burnett, 37, announced during the 2013 regular season campaign that he was contemplating going into retirement at season’s end, but was still open to negotiating with only the Pittsburgh Pirates for one last season. Just weeks after the 2013 season came to an end, the Pirates declined Burnett’s qualifying offer of 14.1 million dollar. As a result, many fans (myself included) assumed Burnett would now choose to enter retirement, and walk away from the game for good. That was until earlier this week, Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that Burnett does intend to play this season, but is now open to negotiating with teams other than the Pirates.
There is no question in Burnett’s team value. In two seasons with the Bucs, Burnett has a combined record of 26-21, and combined earned run average (ERA) of 3.41. Pretty outstanding numbers for a 35 year old who struggled in years prior with the New York Yankees. His locker room presence has been outstanding for the Pirates, and he did a great job mentoring young pitchers such as Jeff Locke and Gerrit Cole.
All good things aside, the real question is do the Pirates even need Burnett anymore? Without him, the Pirates already have solid starting pitching rotation consisting of Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez, and either Jeff Locke, or the recently signed Edinson Volquez. Liriano, Cole, Morton and Rodriguez are all likely to be guaranteed spots in the rotation, leaving Volquez and Locke fighting for that final fifth spot. Volquez, who really has not been relevant since his days with Cincinnati will be working hard during spring training to try and return to his original form under the Bucs pitching coach Ray Searage. Locke on the other hand put up an outstanding first half to the regular season, earning him a spot on the National League All-Star team. Unfortunately, Locke’s second half of the year was not nearly as successful and he ended up pitching himself out of a rotation spot. If Locke and Volquez don’t pan out, it’ll be very easy for the Pirates to turn to top prospect Jameson Taillon, who is already likely to make his major league debut in mid-June or July.
From a fan’s perspective, I would love to see Burnett return in 2014. But from a business perspective, it may not be a necessary move. As a fan, I’d like to thank him for what he has done for the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. He was a part of a franchise I have been watching for 19 years, a franchise that wasn’t winning. A team which is arguably the most memorable in Pirates history. A team that made the great city of Pittsburgh fall in love with baseball again. Whether he returns or not, I wish him luck in 2014, but it would be tough seeing him in other colors than black and gold.