Report: Yanks, Pirates nearing Burnett deal

Via George King, the Yankees are nearing a deal that would send A.J. Burnett to the Pirates in exchange for two marginal prospects. Pittsburgh would absorb $13-15M of the $33M left on the right-hander’s contract. “It will happen this weekend,” said King’s source. “Probably Saturday.”

Pitchers and catchers report on Sunday, and the Yankees probably don’t want this to drag on into camp. The commissioner’s office will need to approve the deal because more than $1M is changing hands, but that’s considered nothing more than a formality.

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Burnett and the Mystery Team

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The A.J. Burnett trade saga continues to move along uneventfully, as the Pirates and Yankees are reportedly still haggling over just how much each side will contribute towards the $33M left on the right-hander’s contract. It seems inevitable that A.J. will be traded before pitchers and catchers report on Sunday, it’s only a question of how much will the team save and what nondescript minor leaguer(s) will they get in return.

Something about all this trade talk just doesn’t feel right, however. The Yankees keep all their potential moves very, very close to the chest, but these talks have been about as public as possible. We’ve been getting hourly “updates” for a week now, which just isn’t typical of the current Brian Cashman regime. Perhaps it’s the Pittsburgh side with all the leaks, it does take two to tango, but again Yankees trade talks never seem to be this public. It’s very out of the ordinary.

Buster Olney reported this morning that a Mystery Team submitted a trade proposal to the Yankees yesterday, though the Buccos are apparently still in the lead. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I get the sense that the Pirates are just being used as leverage. Usually the Mystery Team is a manufactured rumor to create leverage, but we’ve seen both Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols sign with surprise clubs this offseason after Cliff Lee did it last winter. The Mystery Team has a pretty strong roster these days.

We know the Angels and Indians have interest in Burnett in addition to the Pirates, but we did originally hear that four teams were in the running. We still don’t know who that fourth team is — Royals? Orioles? White Sox? your guess is as good as mine — but they do seem to be lurking. Maybe I’ve just got a case of hot stove dementia and am trying to reach for something that’s not there, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Burnett winds up with a team not previously reported and that none of us expect.

Reports: Angels, Indians want Burnett too

Via Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman, both the Angels and Indians have expressed interest in trading for A.J. Burnett, though the Halos are one of ten teams included in his no-trade clause and he won’t waive it. Talks with the Tribe apparently revolve around Burnett and Travis Hafner, who’d fit that left-handed DH role beautifully. Cleveland isn’t exactly thrilled about that potential swap though, plus Pronk is owed $15.75M next year (including the buyout of his 2013 option). They’d have to figure out the money.

Over the weekend we heard that four teams have interest in Burnett, one being the Pirates and one being a club on his no-trade list. That means we’re down to just one mystery team.

Making sense of the Burnett trade talk

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

The last few days have been abuzz with news about a potential trade involving A.J. Burnett, most likely to the Pirates with the Yankee saving anywhere from $8-15M over the next two years. Reports made it sound as if a trade was imminent, but instead they insisted nothing was close. If a trade is made, I have to think it would get done this week, before pitchers and catchers officially report to camp on Sunday (the Pirates report on Friday). No one wants this to drag out and have it be a distraction in Spring Training.

Currently stuck in a three-man battle for the fifth starter’s spot, there are certainly some valid reasons to keep Burnett and use him in that role. His strikeout (8.18 K/9 and 20.7 K%) and ground ball (49.2%) rates improved considerably last year (6.99 K/9 and 17.5 K% with a 44.9 GB% in 2010), and his outrageous homerun rate (1.47 HR/9 and 17.0% HR/FB) should rebound only because no one has ever given up one homer for every six fly balls over an extended period of time. Burnett’s 3.86 xFIP in 2011 paints a much rosier picture than his 5.15 ERA, but you have to be careful with xFIP because it assumes a pitcher should have a league average homerun rate (10.6% HR/FB). That part is simply not true; pitchers give up homers at different rates. From 2006-2010 (his time in the AL excluding last season), approximately 11.9% of Burnett’s fly balls left the yard, more than the average.

That said, the difference between A.J.’s homer rate and the league average isn’t huge, but we should probably adjust our expectations a bit and not take the xFIP data as gospel. Don’t get me wrong, if the homer rate comes down he’ll make for a damn fine fifth starter. The question the Yankees have to ask themselves is whether they think Burnett can actually pitch to his xFIP over the next two years, and if they’re willing to gamble $33M to find out. Given the trade talks, the answer is pretty clearly no. At age 35, it’s reasonable to expect Burnett to get worse over the next two seasons, not better. This could very well be their last chance to unload (part of) his contract, because if they keep him and he does decline further this coming year, they’ll have no chance to trade him, not for anything close to the kind of salary relief they’re looking at right now anyway.

Just the fact that they’re talking about dealing Burnett — who’s turned into a workhorse that takes the ball every fifth day regularly — tells you the Yankees are confident in their pitching depth. Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes are more than qualified to hold down the final spot in the big league rotation, and the minor league backups include David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell, and Adam Warren, probably in that order. Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances are a little further away but should be able to step in at midseason if things go reasonably according to plan. There won’t be any Tim Reddings or Darrell Mays coming to town this year unless something many things have gone horribly, horribly wrong. Simply entertaining the notion of dealing A.J. is a vote of confidence in the kids.

The Yankees know Burnett better than any of us, and appear to have decided that trading him and using the cost savings to fill out the remaining holes on the roster — backup infielder, left-handed DH, maybe a second lefty reliever? — is better than keeping him around in some capacity. I think A.J. could be a pretty effective one-inning reliever for reasons Joe outlined last year, but the club isn’t exactly hurting for bullpen help either. Eating all that money to move the last two years of Burnett’s contract is a tough pill to swallow (especially since he’s in no way a jerk or an unpleasant person), but I do believe trading him and getting out from under as much of the contract as possible is the right move at the moment. Using the extra money to improve other aspects of the roster is icing on the cake.

An elegy for Allan James

In 1999, before the Internet played a major role in driving baseball rumors, the Yanks sent David Wells packing on on the eve of Spring Training. In 2004, before Twitter created a world filled with anonymous sources driving our thirst for constant updates, Alex Rodriguez landed in Brian Cashman‘s lap. This year, it seems, A.J. Burnett will be the high-profile player dealt on the eve of Spring Training.

The Yankees haven’t yet wrapped up their A.J. maneuverings. According to Marc Carig’s latest, the main sticking point concerns the amount of money the Pirates will send back to New York. While many seem to think a deal will get done before pitchers and catchers report, the Yankees are not against bringing Burnett to Tampa with them. I have a feeling a trade will be consummated, but it’s a process.

We’ll get to the analysis of how a potential Burnett trade impacts the Yanks’ pitching situation in the morning. Tonight, though, I come with some musings on A.J. For a player who landed in the Yanks’ lap, albeit for the tidy sum of $82.5 million over five years, Burnett’s tenure has been anything but steady for the Yanks.

When the Yanks signed Burnett, the biggest questions surrounding the right-hander concerned his health. Prior to joining the Yanks, Burnett had made 30 or more starts in a Big League season just twice in his career, but he seemed to have found health in his years in Toronto. With the Blue Jays, he flashed the strike outs with a K/9 of 9.0 and kept his walk rate at a manageable 3.3 per 9 innings. He beat the Yanks, and he beat the Red Sox. As long as he stayed healthy, nearly everyone figured he would be just fine on the Yanks.

The health, of course, hasn’t been an issue. Burnett has made 98 starts for the Yankees, and he has lead the league in walks once, wild pitches twice and hit batters once. I saw Burnett throw Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS at Yankee Stadium, and for him that year, it was a typical game. He held the Twins to a run on three hits over six innings but walked five. He threw some clunkers in the ALCS, tossed a gem of a game in Game 2 of the World Series and was shelled in Game 5, not even escaping the third inning.

The next year in the ALCS, he folded against the Rangers. In his one playoff appearance that year, in a pivotal Game 4, he could not get past Bengie Molina. I was watching the game in a bar in California and basically started cursing the TV when Molina launched that home run. Burnett just turned in disgust.

For A.J., though, it was never a matter of accepting failure. In 2011, his struggles became a weekly story as he would grow visibly frustrated on the mound. I was in Minnesota for the infamous game this past August when the TV cameras caught him cursing at, well, someone before he stormed off into the clubhouse. Both Joe Girardi and Burnett denied an altercation had happened, and I had the chance to hear Burnett speak in the locker room. He truly wanted to pitch better, to be better than he had been. As much as it pained me to watch him throw every five days, I felt bad for the guy.

It is now looking likely that Burnett’s last pinstriped hurrah will be Game 4 of the 2011 ALDS. With rain impacting their pitching plans and Burnett’s riding a successful September, which included his first win as a Yankee at Fenway Park in three seasons, Girardi handed the ball to A.J., and he delivered only as A.J. could. With the bullpen active from the first inning and he defense supporting him, he lasted through 5.2 innings while giving up only one run on four hits and four walks. For a minute at least, we held our breaths and believed in A.J.

If A.J. has thrown his final pitch for the Yanks, I can’t say I’ll miss him. He was the age-old enigma wrapped in a mystery in which the cliched sayings held true. He once had electric stuff, but he’s now 35. His fastball has faded, and he never could control his breaking pitches. He’s also due $33 million over the next two years. Maybe he’ll still be here in a week, but I wouldn’t bet on it. And for the Yankees, that’s not bad news at all.

Report: Yanks, Pirates have framework for Burnett trade in place

12:59pm ET: Via Ken Rosenthal, the Yankees would pay $19-23M of the $33M left on Burnett’s deal and receive multiple non-40-man roster minor leaguers from the Pirates. The two sides are still talking and it doesn’t appear that a trade is imminent.

12:00pm ET: Via Buster Olney, the Yankees and Pirates have a framework in place for an A.J. Burnett trade. The deal is not done because they still have to agree on the final players and dollar amount, but the two sides are now on common ground. Jon Heyman and Joel Sherman say the Yankees don’t love the two (!) minor leaguers Pittsburgh is offering and will shop around a bit just to make sure there’s not a better deal to be made. All indications are that A.J. will be moved in the coming days. The money they save may then go to Eric Chavez and a left-handed DH.

Rosenthal: Pirates one of four teams in on Burnett

Via Ken Rosenthal, the Pirates are just one of four teams with interest in trading for A.J. Burnett. One of those four teams is on his no-trade list, and the Yankees feel Pittsburgh makes the “most sense” as a trade partner. It might have something to do with them being in the NL, or a non-contender, or both. Yesterday we heard that the Pirates are willing to take on $10M of the $33M left on his deal, but the Yankees are holding out for a 50-50 split.