How A.J. Burnett's Absence Will Hurt the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2014

Ryan GauleCorrespondent IMarch 5, 2014

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett delivers a pitch during the first inning of an baseball game against the against the Atlanta Braves Monday, June 3, 2013 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
John Bazemore/Associated Press

The year was 2011, and A.J. Burnett had just finished what was actually an improved season from 2010. Still, he owned a 5.15 ERA with the Yankees that season and was traded away to the Pittsburgh Pirates during the offseason. 

A change of scenery is exactly what Burnett needed, as he answered with a 16-10 record and a great 3.51 ERA in his first season with the Pirates in 2012. 

Last season, Burnett continued to look sharp, lowering his ERA to 3.30 in 191.0 innings with Pittsburgh.  He was a key component of the team that made its first playoff appearance since 1992. 

Given his experience in the league and his personality in the clubhouse, Burnett fit right in with this organization and simply made them better as a whole. 

During this past offseason, however, the Pirates let Burnett test free agency. He went on to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies. That was unfortunate for the organization and its fans, because Burnett's presence in the rotation certainly will be missed. 

Although he will be entering his age-37 season, Burnett proved to be as effective as ever in his two seasons with the Pirates. A short-term deal would have greatly benefitted the organization. 

When he is at his best, Burnett's curveball is still one of the meanest in the game, and his 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings pitched in 2013 was the highest it's ever been in his 15-year career. 

With a rotation already consisting of Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole, Burnett would have made Pittsburgh's rotation among the best in the National League. However, his absence leaves a major hole in its middle. 

According to the Pirates' depth chart on their team page, Charlie Morton is their third starting pitcher behind Liriano and Cole. If healthy, Morton's arm could be a huge boost for the Pirates, as he started 20 games last season and owned a solid 3.26 ERA. However, he would have probably fit best as the fourth man behind Burnett in the rotation. 

Instead, Jeff Locke will follow Morton as the fourth man, who performed wonderfully for the Pirates in 2013, compiling a 10-7 record with a 3.52 ERA in 30 starts. 

The fifth spot in the rotation is still up for grabs, as Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez compete to win the starting job. 

Rodriguez missed most of 2013 due to a forearm injury. He had his best season in 2009, when he went 14-12 with a 3.02 ERA for the Astros. That was five years ago, though, so there is no way to predict how effective he will be coming off of an injury-plagued season last year. Volquez has a history of injuries, as he was limited to five starts in 2013 and also underwent Tommy John surgery in 2009

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 8:  A.J. Burnett #34 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the Seattle Mariners on May 8, 2013 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

So, whichever option the Pirates choose to go with heading into 2014, they will certainly miss Burnett's presence in the rotation. 

If they had worked out a deal with Burnett, the Pirates would have had five quality starting pitchers, which would give them a chance to win every time they took the field. Instead, there is a hole in the rotation that cannot be ignored. 

If the top four men in the rotation continue to perform, the Pirates will be just fine in 2014. However, it is interesting to think just how good that rotation could have been if they had re-signed A.J. Burnett. 


*Statistics Courtesy of Baseball Reference