The Yankees currently have a pitching problem. Most teams would benefit greatly from having one of Freddy Garcia, Phil Hughes, and A.J. Burnett in the No. 5 rotation spot, but the Yankees have just one spot for those three. While they could go into Spring Training with all three, there’s a chance something will give before then. Since Hughes is still cheaply under team control, and since Garcia can’t be traded until June, Burnett could be the one involved in any pre-season deal.
Anonymous quotes that Jeff Bradley of the Star-Ledger obtained for his weekend column back up the idea of a Burnett move. “It’s a waiting game now to see if A.J. can be dealt,” said Bradley’s source, who is apparently knowledgeable about the Yankees’ off-season plans. While a Burnett deal is no certainty — Mike just made the case for Burnett as the fifth starter — it remains the most likely scenario at this point. The only question remaining is of the circumstances that would warrant a Burnett trade.
They should trade A.J. if:
1. They can get back a useful player
This seems unlikely. As Mike noted in the previous post, and as many of us have noted all off-season, Burnett has ranked among the worst pitchers in baseball for the last two years. Even if he has the potential to pitch much better, teams aren’t eager to take that gamble. That Burnett is now 35 years old makes such a gamble even riskier.
Chances are the only potentially useful players they can get back are of the same ilk as Burnett: overpaid with a productive track record but a spotty recent past. Last week Mike discussed the Burnett for Jason Bay idea, which does have a few merits. There are other big names with big contracts, such as Alfonso Soriano and Adam Dunn, but both are owed considerably more than Burnett, and both are under contract for one additional year. There is at least a chance, and perhaps a good chance, that any team can avoid Bay’s vesting option and have his contract end after the 2013 season.
Other options who fit this mold include Alex Rios ($38 million through 2014), Travis Hafner ($15.75 million through 2012), Justin Morneau ($28 million through 2013), Vernon Wells, ($62 million through 2014), and Carlos Lee ($18.5 million through 2012). None of those is particularly enticing, though neither is Burnett.
2. They can use the freed dollars to sign a useful player
This weekend the Red Sox traded Marco Scutaro to the Rockies for a pitcher who probably isn’t as valuable as Scutaro. Why would the Red Sox do this, especially after they traded their other potential starting shortstop, Jed Lowrie, earlier in the off-season? Speculation persists that the Sox made the move in order to free up payroll so that they can pursue a pitcher. The idea is that even though they’re downgrading at shortstop, the overall gain could favor them.
If the Yankees were to trade Burnett, they’d have to eat a considerable portion of his contract. But they wouldn’t have to eat all of it. The portion that they save, perhaps a third of the remaining value, could go towards signing someone to fill the only open lineup lineup spot, DH. They won’t free up enough money to sign Prince Fielder, though, and beyond him the market looks pretty bleak. It means they’d have to find a trade partner, which only complicates matters.
They shouldn’t trade A.J. if:
1. They don’t do anything with the freed-up money
The Yankees have to pay Burnett. It’s the nature of MLB contracts. They can avoid paying some of his remaining contract if they trade him, but if they don’t reinvest those dollars, there isn’t much of a point to making a trade. At that point having Burnett pitch for the team, even in a reduced role, is preferable to paying him to pitch for another team.
2. They have to eat more than two-thirds of his remaining contract
The Yankees owe Burnett $33 million through 2013, so they’d save $11 million, or $5.5 million per season, if they were to eat two-thirds of his remaining contract. Any more than that, though, and it’s probably not worth the time and effort. Again, a look at the free agent list reveals little of use in that price range. Unless the Yankees think that an additional $5.5 million in both 2012 and 2013 can help them swing a deal they otherwise couldn’t, then they should just keep Burnett and see if he can help them in whatever ways possible. (Read: bullpen.)
3. They feel he’s the best option for the rotation
Few fans believe that Burnett is the best guy to take the mound behind Sabathia, Nova, Kuroda, and Pineda, but as the saying goes, if you think like a fan you’ll soon be sitting with them. If the Yankees believe that Burnett is the man best-suited to take the fifth spot in the rotation, then they shouldn’t trade him for the sake of unclogging the logjam. They can do other things to accomplish that.
It seems unlikely that they’d think this, given Burnett’s performances in the last two years. But perhaps they see something different in Burnett now, or have figured out why he has fared so poorly from June through September, 2010 to 2011. In any case, there’s no reason to trade him if he’s the best man for the job.
As before, any Burnett trade scenario is improbable. There are too many moving parts involved, from Burnett’s contract to potential trade targets. There’s also the matter of using the available dollars to pursue an upgrade elsewhere, something else that is far from guaranteed. The gamblers among us would do well to bet on Burnett starting the season with navy blue pinstripes.