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Why A.J. Burnett Is Perfect for Orioles, Safe Bet in AL East

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Why A.J. Burnett Is Perfect for Orioles, Safe Bet in AL East
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

You don't come across perfect free-agent fits that often. A lot of players fill needs, but not budgets. Some players fill needs and budgets, but not long-term plans. And so on. You know how it is.

I guess that makes today a special day, for today we have an excuse to talk about a rare perfect free-agent fit: A.J. Burnett and the Baltimore Orioles.

On an otherwise slow Tuesday, this was the big news from Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

According to Dan Connolly of The Baltimore Sun, the Orioles are "definitely" interested in Burnett, to a point where he now might be at the top of the club's wish list.

Cue an image in my head of a bunch of Orioles fans shouting "Finally!" in unison.

It's been that kind of winter. The Jim Johnson trade is the biggest splash Baltimore made, and that involved the Orioles losing the star closer. They only got Jemile Weeks in that deal, and other pieces brought in by Dan Duquette include Ryan Webb, David Lough, Delmon Young and Alfredo Aceves. Grant Balfour was almost signed, but then he wasn't

After winning 93 games in 2012, the Orioles took a step back to 85 wins in 2013. If their offseason haul ends up looking like, well, that, another step back will be in the cards.

But Burnett? Besides being the big-ticket addition Orioles fans have been waiting for, he's also a player the team can afford and one who would solve a problem that needs solving.

As of now, Cot's Baseball Contracts has Baltimore's salary commitments for 2014 at a modest $72 million. Baseball-Reference has the club's final payroll projected in the low $80 million range.

Baltimore opened 2013 at $92 million. If we look at the going price for pitching in this winter's market and assume that Burnett can be signed for between $10 and $15 million, the Orioles' payroll would either be hardly budging or only going up a few million bucks. Not a lot to ask, that.

Plus, there's the fact that Burnett isn't tied to draft-pick compensation after the Pittsburgh Pirates declined to make him a qualifying offer. Couple that with how he's a candidate for a one-year deal—he is 37 and was said to be weighing retirement, after all—and we're looking at a signing that has virtually zero chance of hurting the Orioles in the long run.

As for the big problem Burnett would fix, well, maybe you haven't looked at Baltimore's projected rotation in a while. Right now, the only sure things are:

  1. Chris Tillman
  2. Wei-Yin Chen
  3. Bud Norris
  4. Miguel Gonzalez

And that's it. The hope for the No. 5 spot is young right-hander Kevin Gausman, and the job may be his to lose given the lack of real competition.

So yeah, not good.

The lack of depth is concerning. And while there's some talent in the mix, it's really only decent. According to FanGraphs, none of the aforementioned five guys was worth more than 2.0 WAR in 2013. Steamer's projections say that none will be worth more than 2.2 WAR in 2014.

Now we come to the point in our program where we portray Burnett as a white knight based on what he did in 2012 and 2013 and what he's projected to do in 2014:

A.J. Burnett's 2012-2013 and Projected 2014
Year GS IP K% BB% ERA FIP WAR
2012 31 202.1 21.2% 7.3% 3.51 3.52 3.0
2013 30 191.0 26.1% 8.4% 3.30 2.80 4.0
Projected 2014 32 189.0 22.5% 8.6% 3.63 3.27 3.4

FanGraphs

After a bounce-back 2012 season, Burnett was about twice as valuable as any Orioles starter in 2013. And right now, he's projected to be considerably more valuable in 2014 than any Baltimore starter.

By no means should anyone be afraid to believe it. Burnett's been a quality innings-eater in each of the last two seasons, something you can say about none of Baltimore's current starters. He was an elite strikeout merchant in 2013, something the Orioles didn't have.

To this end, it's surprisingly reasonable to anticipate Burnett keeping it going. He still has one of the game's nastier curveballs, and Brooks Baseball can show that his velocity actually went up in 2013.

Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

If there's something that might give one pause, it's the reality that signing with the Orioles would not only take Burnett out of PNC Park (an extreme pitchers' park) and put him at Oriole Park at Camden Yards (an extreme hitters' park), but it would also return him to the AL East.

The last time Burnett was pitching in the AL East, he was compiling a 5.20 ERA and giving up 56 homers between 2010 and 2011 as a member of the New York Yankees. He, uh, didn't look so good.

But here's the thing: Burnett is not the same pitcher he was when he was wearing pinstripes. He's changed, and for the better.

That change is mostly in how Burnett handles his business when it comes to throwing heat. According to Brooks Baseball, here's how his balance between his four-seamer and his sinker has evolved:

A.J. Burnett's Heat
Year Four-Seam % Sinker %
2008 46.68 17.59
2009 46.20 19.26
2010 49.91 19.58
2011 41.97 13.67
2012 24.61 35.56
2013 22.20 36.52

Brooks Baseball

Burnett's sinker used to play second fiddle to his four-seamer. In his two years in Pittsburgh, it was the other way around.

The result was what you would expect: Burnett's ground-ball percentage skyrocketed. After sitting below 50 percent in each of his three years in New York, Burnett's 56.7 ground-ball percentage over the last two seasons ties him with Justin Masterson for second best among all qualified starters.

This transformation helps alleviate any concerns of Burnett becoming as homer prone as he was the last time he was pitching in the AL East. Ground balls play well everywhere, be it OPACY, Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park or Rogers Centre.

It should also be acknowledged that Burnett would not be pitching in front of, say, the 2012 or 2013 Detroit Tigers defense. The Orioles were seventh in defensive efficiency in 2013, according to Baseball Prospectus. They were second in Ultimate Zone Rating.

Not much should change in 2014. Manny Machado and J.J. Hardy will still be on the left side, forming arguably the best defensive duo in the American League. Former shortstop Jonathan Schoop should be good enough at second base. Chris Davis is nothing special at first, but he is hardly a liability.

All things considered, maybe the biggest question is whether Baltimore makes as much sense for Burnett as he makes for the club. But the Orioles could be in worse standing there, too, as they might be able to sell Burnett on the notion of him being their missing link. Another thing they can offer him, of course, is a chance to pitch in his own backyard. Burnett lives in the Baltimore area.

If Burnett's willing, the Orioles should be too. He's a pitcher they don't need to break the bank to afford, and he has both the track record and the makings to be a top-of-the-rotation arm for a staff that needs one.

It could happen. It might happen. Heck, it should happen. It's just too perfect.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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