In the past two seasons, starting pitcher A.J. Burnett was an anchor for a strong Pittsburgh Pirates staff. After joining the Philadelphia Phillies for this season, it’s starting to look like Pittsburgh could be back in his plans with the team reportedly showing some interest in advance of Major League Baseball’s trade deadline. The Pirates are looking for another starting pitcher and recently sent a scout to witness Burnett’s latest start, per the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Following a tumultuous relationship with the New York Yankees, Burnett joined the Pirates in 2012 and had some of the best success of his career. Over that two-year span, he logged an ERA under 3.50 and while his 26-21 record wasn’t jaw-dropping, he often had too little run support. Nearly as important, Burnett’s positive impact on the staff’s young pitchers has been well-documented and he seemed to be the perfect fit in a rotation lacking postseason experience.
Despite playing on an improving team that reached the playoffs in 2013, Burnett chose to sign with the Phillies in the offseason. Depending on who tells the story, he either left to appease his family or wanted more money. In the end, it may have been a little of both.
Burnett’s stay in Philly hasn’t gone as well as planned, though. While the Phillies had hoped to contend in the National League East this year, it’s been another down season for the team. At 43-56, Philadelphia sits in last place in the Division and certainly has the look of a seller with the upcoming trade deadline.
For his part, Burnett has been serviceable. The 6-9 record is disappointing, but Burnett has a reasonable ERA of 4.08 and is still striking out close to a batter an inning. Overall he is striking out fewer batters and walking more, but the former Pirates ace is still capable of supporting a staff.
The other advantage to acquiring Burnett is that he’s been pitching much better lately. He was lit up in his last start against the Atlanta Braves, giving up six runs in only five innings, but Burnett has mostly been trending upward. Prior to that disastrous start against Atlanta, he hadn’t given up more than three earned runs in his past seven games. As a result, he had lowered his ERA from 4.41 to 3.83 before the Braves contest.
A return stint in Pittsburgh isn’t a guarantee, but one significant stumbling blocks is out of the way as the Pirates are one of the nine teams he can be traded to without his permission. He currently holds a no-trade clause with 20 teams, but the Bucs aren’t one of them, per ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick.
Burnett’s salary may be a detractor, however. In addition to the rest of his 2014 salary, there is a mutual option for $15 million for next year on the table. If the team declines that, Burnett can still opt in for $7.5 million, per Baseball Prospectus. That doesn’t sound too bad, but if Burnett reaches a certain number of starts, that figure can jump to as much as $12.75 million.
Simply put, that number (along with any players the Pirates would need to give up) may make a trade to Pittsburgh too difficult. The Pirates reportedly are prepared to add payroll per CBS Sports’ Jon Morosi, but that’s a large amount of money for a small-market team.