A.J. Burnett has struggled for much of his Yankee tenure, but Pittsburgh might be exactly the cure for him.
A.J. Burnett is on his way to the Pittsburgh Pirates, pending approval from the commissioner's office. While Yankees fans can't wait to be rid of a pitcher who, over the last two seasons, has an ERA of 5.20 and 26 losses despite the juggernaut of a lineup supporting him, Pirates' devotees should be pleased.
This isn't to say that Pittsburgh and its fans should be satisfied with the scraps thrown off the Yankees' table like the beggars they appear to be here, but Pittsburgh is a much better environment for Burnett than New York. This isn't some crack about media scrutiny in the Big Apple, either: there are multiple reasons for the Pirates to be excited about their slightly-used A.J. Burnett.
For one, the Pirates need to spend money if they are going to approach .500 and make more money that can be put back into the team. The new collective bargaining agreement makes it difficult for the Pirates to succeed in the draft as they have, as the only way to retain the large spending pool they have become accustomed to is to continue to fail. It's an ugly circle, but some risks taken with money on the free agent and trade markets could help offset that loss. If they don't spend it on risks like Burnett, then they are basically sitting on it and perpetuating this cycle.
Burnett, 2009 aside, has been a waste of money for a Yankees' team that could have afforded to spend those dollars and innings elsewhere. With the Pirates paying Burnett just $13 million over the next two years, though, he's not a costly risk for them. The Dodgers gave Chris Capuano two years and $10 million. They also gave Aaron Harang two years and $12 million. The Royals gave Bruce Chen two years and $9 million. Those three are basically useful back-end pieces at this point, and for around the same money, the Pirates got an arm that can be at least that, but possibly better.
Burnett isn't the front-line pitcher this staff could use, but he gives them another starter capable of missing bats along with Erik Bedard and James McDonald. A lack of punchouts has been a problem for the Pirates over the years, and, when combined with their typically poor defenses, is one reason they've failed to win many baseball games for the last two decades. He's struck out 7.9 hitters per nine over the last three seasons and 584 innings, a stretch in which he's made 98 starts. That's another thing: Burnett, for all his warts, has been durable if nothing else.
The walks are a problem, as are the homers. A change of address should rectify both of those situations to a degree. As a Yankee, Burnett has had to face the patient and deadly Red Sox, Rays, and Blue Jays constantly thanks to the unbalanced schedule format. When outside of the AL East, he still has to contend with lineups in Texas, Detroit, and sometimes even the Twins and Angels in their better iterations. The Red Sox hit .294/.386/.564 against Burnett the last three years. The Jays, .307/.380/.571. The Orioles saw him enough to hit .262/.323/.473 against him while he was a Yankee. These are the same Orioles who are the Pittsburgh Pirates of the AL.
The big, scary lineups of the AL East will be a distant memory for Burnett in Pittsburgh. He'll get to face the Pujols-less Cardinals, Prince-less Brewers, and reloading Cubs the next two seasons. The anemic Astros aren't AL-bound until 2013, and the Reds, while featuring a potent offense, will look positively punch-less in comparison to the Red Sox.
The home parks of the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Orioles will also fade in Burnett's rear-view mirror. Yankee Stadium was 43 percent better than average for left-handed homers. Fenway Park is one of the more hitter-friendly environments out there. The Rogers Centre is neutral overall, unless you're susceptible to homers like a certain article subject is. Camden Yards is surprisingly devastating to pitchers, too, but people just assume that's the Orioles' fault.
PNC Park is neutral. It severely limits homers to right-handed hitters, and is just a tad below-average in lefty homers. Burnett, despite being right-handed, has been torched by his fellow righties the last three years, to the tune of .277/.353/.471. His new park will help neutralize that significant issue.
Burnett is no guarantee to rebound and become an above-average pitcher once again. But the possibility is there, given that he'll be leaving the AL East, its lineups, and its parks behind in favor of a friendlier league, division, and park for pitchers. This is exactly the kind of risk the Pirates, who feature a low-upside rotation, should be taking in their quest to get back to .500 baseball before the prospects arrive. And it might be exactly what Burnett needs to get back to what earned him that seemingly immovable contract in the first place.