Loose, winding thoughts about the A.J. Burnett trade

Girardi Speaks: CC, Rotation, Lineup, A-Rod
Yanks, Martin talked about a three-year deal this offseason

It’s easy to know what you feel about the A.J. Burnett trade. In the last three years we’ve all developed our unique opinions about him, both as a player and as a person, even though none of us is qualified to judge the latter. Those opinions will dictate how we feel about him no longer being on the roster.

What we think of the trade that will send him to Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is something else entirely. Oftentimes our thoughts about matters like this go unexplored. It is, after all, just baseball — entertainment at its core, and fans experience it through emotions. Thinking beyond our emotions often incites ridicule. Since we know our emotions are true, anything that contradicts them must be false. QED.

On RAB we try to relate what we think about Yankees-related things, but because we’re fans we bleed into the emotional. A regular RAB post on the Burnett deal, then, would reflect how the author felt about Burnett. That includes not only Burnett’s performances, but also any other impressions he made on us in the last three years. And, of course, further away events will hold less weight. How we felt about the signing at the time might factor into how we feel, but it will be to a lesser degree than our feelings about his performances, say, this past August.

To avoid these emotional shackles, I will reduce the situation to its barest essentials. That is, facts — or at least items we can loosely term facts. Their relevancy to the matter is up for debate.

  • Burnett will have still earned his $82.5 million by the end of the 2013 season, as per the original agreement between him and the Yankees. But the Yankees will have paid $69.5 million of that, and for only three seasons. Despite the way it affects official payroll numbers, the Yankees will have paid Burnett an average of $23.167 million for each season he pitched for them.
  • An average annual value of $23.167 million is the 9th highest in baseball history.
  • CC Sabathia averaged $23 million per season under his original contract. He averages $24 million under his new contract.
  • Even though he will not throw a pitch for them in the next two seasons, the Yankees will still pay Burnett an average of $10 million in each of them.
  • To obtain Burnett on what amounts to a two-year, $13 million contract, the Pirates surrendered a 25-year-old relief pitcher who has 14 appearances above A-ball and a 20-year-old center fielder who has one home run in 558 career plate appearances.
  • There may be other facts about these players that are more relevant than the ones I listed.
  • But the fact remains that Exicardo is an exquisite name.
  • Both Jake Westbrook and Carl Pavano signed two-year, $16.5 million contracts last off-season.
  • Last season Burnett produced 1.1 rWAR. Pavano produced 2.0, and Westbrook 0.
  • I like rWAR (or bWAR, whatever you want to call it) for pitchers, since it uses runs against, rather than FIP.
  • With the $5 million they will save from this season’s payroll, the Yankees signed Raul Ibanez.
  • While Ibanez’s contract is only $1.1 million, reports have surfaced that the Yankees can’t afford much more. This suggests that they signed Hiroki Kuroda knowing they had options to deal Burnett, and were intent on doing so since mid-January.
  • Still, it doesn’t seem like they’d need to stretch the budget to sign Eric Chavez.
  • The Yankees currently have four starting pitchers returning from last season, one recent free agent signee, and a 23-year-old who pitched well in his rookie season.
  • The above fact is to imply that someone had to go. To be discussed below.

Based on feeling, I like the trade. The Yankees had three pitchers vying for one rotation spot. Phil Hughes is at the nadir of his value after pitching poorly and getting hurt in 2011. Freddy Garcia can’t be traded without his permission, and even then the Yankees save more money this year by trading Burnett, not to mention next year’s savings. Garcia has also out-pitched Burnett in the last two seasons by pretty much every measure. Burnett had moments of success in 2010 and 2011, but in no way forced the issue to stay on the team.

Based on the facts, it’s easier to dislike the trade. The Yankees essentially gave away Burnett, and with him any chance to recoup further value on his contract. Before the trade, the Yankees had paid Burnett $49.5 million for 3.4 rWAR, which is hardly a good return: $14.6 million per win on a linear basis. If they kept him around the next two seasons, they at least had a chance to increase that per-win value. Whether he was capable of performing to that level, of course, is another question. But now it’s not even a possibility. They’ll have paid him more than $20 million per win, on a linear basis (which, again, is not perfect, but it gets the point across).

(And then again, dumping him might help them avoid further dollars-per-win deficits.)

The idea behind the trade still comes down to having three pitchers competing for one rotation spot. One of them had to go, and under the current circumstances Burnett makes the most sense. It’s a shame that he didn’t come close to living up to his contract, and it’s a shame that he won’t get the final two years of the deal to redeem himself. But at this point a bounceback had to be considered a long shot. The Yankees acted as they had to, eating a lot of money while admitting a mistake. It does appear that the 2012 team will be a bit easier to manage as a result.

Girardi Speaks: CC, Rotation, Lineup, A-Rod
Yanks, Martin talked about a three-year deal this offseason
  • LiterallyFigurative

    I think the Yanks just decided that AJ would be no better than the 6th starter of the 7 options, and they’d rather pay 11 million per for no impact than 16.5 million for no impact. I don’t think the two players they got back are anything of value, but there may be potential for the pitcher to blossom. He throws 97, so the Yanks went with the “what if” angle.

  • GardnergoesYardner

    The argument of “he could have lived up to his contract if they had kept him” does not work because the Yankees were not in the position to find that out. If two of Colon, Garcia, and Nova had flopped last year, the Yankees would have been screwed, potentially making that same collapse that the Red Sox did. Burnett has been covered in the last two years by CC, Petitte, Hughes, Garcia, and Nova, and everyone knew that the first move that the Yankees made to get some pitching depth, Burnett would have been taken out of the rotation. Better to clear space and recoup some money then have him sitting in the pen, or unfairly taking a starting spot (highly unlikely, but still) I appreciate A.J. for all that he has done well as a Yankee, but he used up all his bonus points from Game 2 a long time ago and had to be moved.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/joshfortunatus joshfortunatus

    For what AJ produced, the Yanks have more than just Freddy and Hughes that can also produce at that level in the minors. If it helps push a Cole deal over the edge (or whoever else is available after this year or next), then I’m for it. Plus, once they get to the playoffs, Sabathia, Kuroda and Pineda is tremendous and they get there without AJ.

  • Granderslam

    The fact of the matter is the Yankees have pitcher in AAA that can outperform or at least pitch to level of AJ at a much cheaper price. They deserve a chance.

    • GardnergoesYardner

      I don’t think the Yankees are counting on any AAA pitcher to pitch to the level of A.J. I agree with you that those pitchers could perform if given a chance, but the Yankees don’t have those kinds of opportunites right now. The point of the deal was too save money and clear space. If they wanted an average, back end starter like the kids in the minors would be right now, they would have just kept A.J.

  • Murderers’ Row Boat

    I’ll miss AJ. He was a great teammate. It’s still bad he was $11.5 million a year overpriced.

  • Bo Knows

    I had a soft spot for AJ…until I read his comments saying that it was people tinkering with his delivery that caused him to pitch the way he did. The fact that he struggled as much as he did is why people bothered to try and tinker.

  • Mike HC

    Agreed. In a vacuum, the Pirates got the better end. When you look at the specific circumstances of the Yanks roster, the move was an overall positive for the Yanks as well as the Pirates.

  • CMP

    I don’t know how anyone can’t love the Burnett trade. He had been kept around, Burnett would have almost certainly been given the 5th starter spot over Hughes and Garcia even though he was by far the worst candidate of the 3.

    Also, I have to think it’s a positive removing him from the clubhouse where he was pretty much dead man walking after each pitiful performance with fans and media obsessed on when and if he was going to get pulled from the rotation.

    His comments today stating “I let a few too many people tinker with me” also shows how completely unaccountable he was about his abject failures on the mound.

    I think Cashman did exactly the right thing and the fact that he got back 2 warm bodies and $13 million is pretty much a minor miracle.

  • steve (different one)

    If they kept him around the next two seasons, they at least had a chance to increase that per-win value.

    This is true, but unfortunately this is NOT the goal in real life. What has happened in the past is done, gone, completely irrelevant. The per-win value of his total contract doesn’t matter anymore, only thing that matters is what they think he’ll do over the next 2 years.

    If he puts up, say 3 more wins over the next 2 years, it will accomplish what you say. He would have produced 6.4 WAR for $82.5M, which is much better than the 3.4 WAR for $69.5. But that is still 2 more years of below average pitching.

    They should be able to get 3 WAR from whomever replaces him in the rotation plus whatever they do with the rest of the money they’ve saved. I liked AJ more than most, but when you look at like that, the trade seems like a no brainer, IMHO.

  • Bronx Byte

    Burnett will be a big fish in a small pond with Pittsburgh. With the Yankees he went from a No. 2 starter to a marginal No. 5 starter.
    He won’t have to face DH’s in the NL.

    • Mike HC

      Or Pujols, or Braun for the first 50 games, or Fielder. I could get outs in the NL Central, ha.

    • steve (different one)

      Agreed, he’s going to doing alright in the NL. His stuff has diminished with age, so he needs to move to the easier league.

      I like this trade for both teams.

  • KeithK

    While I don’t disagree with the truth of any of the facts presented, many of them look at things in the wrong way. Burnett’s contract is a sunk cost for the Yankees. He had minimal value to the team this year and possibly negative value. For all practical purposes the team got the Pirates to buy him for $13 million. That’s a substantial positive. The fact that the original signing turns out to be a bad overall investment is beside the point.

  • Johnny O

    I won’t miss AJ, but I don’t regret the signing. I’m firmly in the Flags Fly Forever camp.

    • CMP

      …and that flag very well may have flown with or without Burnett as part of the 2009 team.

      • Sweet Dick Willie

        While that’s certainly true, there’s no denying AJ came up HUGE in Game 2.

      • Havok9120

        Would you REALLY be willing to take that risk? Would you really be willing to change the AJ signing and hope someone else comes up that big in the playoffs?

        We’re the Yankees. We have money to spend, and that money may have directly resulted in our first ring in nearly a decade. I’ll take that and be happy.

    • KeithK

      As a fan I don’t regret the signing. 1) It’s not my money; 2) Burnett didn’t block any young pitcher’s development; 3) he didn’t put the team into a financial bind that prevented other moves. His contract was wasted resources, which the team should try to learn from (and probably has, given their approach this off season). But nothing to be too upset about.

      $82 million is a tremendous amount of money. But it looks a lot smaller when put in the context of $1 billion that the Yankees will spend on payroll over those same five years.

  • LarryM.,Fl.

    Its clear and simple if anything with emotion involved is simple. AJ was not worth the money being spent to keep on the team and hope for a resurrection of his pitching. He was holding up the potential development of Hughes or another young pitcher. Hughes is still young and worth the effort. AJ would have been an emotional roller coaster for the team especially Girardi. Girardi tried but his patience lost out who could blame him. We saved 13 million to put to other players.

    I don’t think AJ will find the command of his curve to hit the strike zone or come deceptively close. Ash Martin ad cervelli who were diving all over to block his pitches. Without this pitch or the changeup. He’s batting practice in the AL. It was time for this marriage to end.

  • MrPappageorgio

    A.J Burnett on the trade:

    (from the Washington Post)

    “I let a few too many people tinker with me, maybe,” Burnett said. “When you let that happen, you start doubting yourself sometimes. You wonder, ‘Am I doing it right? Is this how it’s supposed to feel?’ and things like that. In ‘09, nobody messed with me. I was able to do what I wanted to do on the mound, whether it was turn around, close my eyes and pitch upside down. Then you have a few bad games and you start changing and listening.”

    “It’s going to be a fresh start,” Burnett said. “It’s going to be fun. I’m going back to the National League, where I can hit and bunt and get the joy back into the game.”

    “Hopefully, I can just lead by example,” Burnett said. “I’ll take the ball every five days. I’m not going to make excuses. One thing I can take from my time in New York is I’ll never back down from anything. I’m not a cheerleader, shaking pom-poms. But I know right and wrong and, hopefully, I can share that with the younger players.”


    • Mike HC

      Thanks for passing that along, I was waiting to hear what AJ had to say about the trade. Good to see he is happy about it and leaving on relatively good terms.

  • tony

    What does QED mean???

  • thenamestsam

    I don’t think WAR analysis really works in this situation because the Yankees replacement level is very different from the average value. While AJ is still enough above the hypothetical league replacement level to generate some value with his durability the reality is that he was no longer above the Yankees replacement level. He was not one of the five best starters on the roster and quite possibly not one of the best 8 or 9. He had no experience as a reliever and there’s no reason to think he would have been one of the seven best relievers on the roster either (certainly not once Joba returns). While he still has some value in general, his value to the 2012 and 2013 New York Yankees was essentially zero. Getting any money for him clearly improves the team.

  • CJ

    AJ signing was a result of the pathetic excuse for a pitching staff that cashman sent to the mound in 2008. After not making the playoffs CC and AJ were a necessity and it paid off in 2009.

  • Fire Levine

    I have a gut feeling the yanks haven’t seen the last of aj Burnett

  • johnnybk

    The question is, how bad would he have gotten in the next two years in the AL east, and could we ever get anything if anyone finds out? AJ was not going to help this team going forward in any meaningful way. At some point you have to fold. Even if you already have 69 million committed to the pot, you should pocket that last 13 before you go chasing an outside straight on the turn.(sorry, I just got back from AC)

  • David Ortiz’s Dealer

    Maybe withe money they saved the Yanks can buy a gallon of gas a burn the binder.

  • David K.

    How could anyone in his right mind write that “on the facts, it’s a bad deal” (or something like that). If you had watched the damn games, you would know that this guy was terrible and, after 2010, had no business starting for the NYY. The facts are that he was the worst Yankee starter ever to get so many starts. What the hell is wrong with you?