Evaluating the Martin and Burnett Signings
Two moves occurred this past week for the Pirates. One was the loss of Russell Martin to the Blue Jays, which is a negative for the 2015 Pirates, but probably good for the long-term future. The second move was the signing of A.J. Burnett for $8.5M. This appears to be a positive for the 2015 Pirates…as long as Burnett has a good attitude and can beat Father Time at age 38.
Russell Martin signed with the Blue Jays for a 5 year/$82M deal. The Blue Jays were not only one of the eight teams I zeroed in as a Martin suitor in August, but the one that I predicted was the front runner for his services. I don’t fault the Pirates at all for not going in on a 5 year deal. That’s going to cover Martin’s age-32 through age-36 seasons. He’s already caught 1,121 games; there’s a lot of tread off those tires. In the American League, he can periodically DH to save his body a little bit. That’s an option not available to the Pirates.
The rumor is that Martin offered the Pirates a chance to sign him at 5 year/$70M, which is a sizeable 15% discount. It shows that he had some interest in staying here, but ultimately he wanted that fifth year of security. That leads me to believe that the Pirates may have been in the 4 yr/$56M range and that Martin tried to get a fifth year at the same annual average value.
Naturally, there will be an outcry that “Nutting is cheap”, which occurs whenever a free agent leaves town or some other event happens that doesn’t please the fanbase. This is not one of those times. Russell Martin would have been worth his salary in Year 1, probably worth it in Year 2, gotten edgy in Year 3, and probably been an albatross in Years 4 and 5. Francisco Cervelli was obtained as a hedge to Martin leaving. If Cervelli can stay healthy, which is a big if with his injury history, he can provide a quality on-base percentage and good pitch framing and defense, at a fraction of Martin’s price (Cervelli is estimated to get $1.1M in arbitration).
The key to not re-signing Martin is that the Pirates must re-invest that allocation of money they were willing to spend on him into the rest of the offseason to improve the team. The Pirates got a start on that proposition by signing A.J. Burnett to a 1 year/$8.5M deal. Burnett’s tenure with the Pirates didn’t end well in 2013. He famously pouted when Gerrit Cole was selected to start over him in St. Louis during the NLDS, even though Cole was dominant in the playoffs and Burnett got shelled earlier by the Cardinals. The Pirates didn’t extend the Qualifying Offer to Burnett ($14.1M last year) and Burnett signed a deal with the Phillies. He turned down his $12.75M player option to come back and sign for $4.25M less with the Pirates.
Armchair psychologist time — I think Burnett’s ego was wounded after the 2013 season. He still saw himself as a top-notch commodity and his pride was hurt that the Pirates didn’t want him. He wasn’t ready to come to grips with the fact that Cole had eclipsed him and he didn’t want to be a second, or third, banana. Once he signed with the Phillies and got his teeth kicked in at the bandbox known as Citizens Bank Ballpark, coupled with an inferior defense, things started to get real for Burnett. He saw his “baseball mortality” was drawing near and wanted to go back to a place that he was happy. He instructed his agent to negotiate solely with the Pirates and the rest is known.
In today’s market, $8.5M is roughly what a #4 starter gets paid. But Burnett’s stuff and peripherals still suggest he can be a low-end #2/high-end #3 pitcher. Even with battling a sports hernia all year, Burnett still hogged 213 innings with an 8.00 K/9 rate and a groundball percentage of 50.9%. Getting back to forgiving PNC Park and the plethora of defensive infield shifts (guess they worked, A.J.) will only benefit Burnett. He just has to know his role on this current version of the Pirates — there may have some teammates who were OK with seeing him go last offseason.
The next moves will be telling. If the Pirates re-sign Liriano and try to get the band back together, the rotation will be solid with Cole-Liriano-Burnett-Worley-Locke. The Pirates would also be well-served in upgrading 1B, which appears to be the only unsettled player position, by signing Adam Laroche. However, it seems as if the Pirates will go with Alvarez at 1B and Gaby Sanchez as the right-handed portion of the platoon at 1B. Ike Davis would be non-tendered in this scenario.
As it stands now, the Pirates have $23M of salary commitments (including Tabata’s salary) and approximately $33M of potential arbitration-eligible salaries. Adding in $1M’ish for Cervelli and $8.5M for Burnett, that brings the total to $65.5M. Adding in $6M for 12 minimum salary players and the Pirates’ payroll is roughly at $71.5M. That’s the same number as last year’s Opening Day payroll and is simply not good enough anymore.
The Pirates need to keep improving the team. Liriano at $12M/year would bring it up to about $83.5M. Sign a veteran middle infielder to upgrade on Barmes and now you’re in the neighborhood of $85M and closer to respectability. There’s still a lot of offseason left and plenty of potential free agent signings/trades to be made.