Neal Huntington spoke to David Todd on 970ESPN this evening, and David came away thinking it was less likely that the Pirates would re-sign A.J. Burnett, and I got the same impression. Huntington repeated that part of the qualifying offer calculus was that the Pirates just don't want to pay Burnett $14.1 million, figuring that their budget won't work that way. Via FanGraphs, Burnett was worth $13.7 million in 2012 and $19.9 million in 2013, so even granting the likelihood of decline, a one-year, $14.1 million contract would appear to be a good deal, particularly given the rapidly-escalating cost of wins on the free agent market. But Huntington said that the decision wasn't really about the Pirates' valuation of Burnett, but rather how well he might fit into their budget.
This doesn't mean that the Pirates won't sign Burnett. He might well sign for less, if he doesn't retire. If he does, then the Pirates will get a good result out of not extending the qualifying offer. It also doesn't mean the Pirates can't have a good offseason even if they don't sign Burnett. The plan might well be to find another undervalued starter, like they did with Burnett or Francisco Liriano, send him to the Ray Searage / Jim Benedict Pitcher-Fixin' School, and reap the benefits when the pupil graduates with honors. It's worked before.
If that's the way things are going to work, though, there are two ways of looking at it, based on what we know right now. The first one is that the Pirates are so confident in their ability to find bargains that they're not interested in a one-year deal for high-level starting pitcher at what appears to be a very good price. If that's what they're thinking, it's cocky, and their cockiness isn't really justified by their history. Yes, they got great results with Burnett, Liriano, Mark Melancon and a couple others in the past couple years, but let's not forget that Huntington really did not fare well in previous offseason markets, getting guys like Erik Bedard, Kevin Correia and Scott Olsen, who didn't really help (to say nothing of the many failed position-player signings). The Pirates have had pretty good results with relievers throughout Huntington's tenure, and I wouldn't be surprised if that continued, simply because bargain-hunting for relievers isn't that hard. With starters and players who might turn out to be important, it's trickier to find bargains in the dollar bin. Not impossible, and hey, I like Searage and Benedict as much as the next guy. But it's trickier.
The other way to look at Huntington's statement today is that the Pirates must hunt for bargains because they truly don't have the money to pay Burnett, which would be extremely frustrating if true. The Pirates are coming off a playoff run, they've had improved attendance, and there's new national TV revenue. They also have a good opportunity to continue to contend. Clearly, the Pirates aren't ever going to be the Yankees, but if there's a time to open the wallet a little bit, it's now. Those of us who have preached patience with the Pirates' payrolls have done so in part because we didn't think it made sense to throw a bunch of money at a team that wasn't well-positioned to contend. Well, now, this team is.
Anyway, it's certainly possible that we shouldn't take what Huntington says right now at face value. It's early in the offseason, and it would be unwise to overreact until we see the whole picture. The Pirates surely have a plan here. After the criticism the Pirates took when they traded Joel Hanrahan and non-tendered Jeff Karstens, the Bucs' last offseason went beautifully. They deserve the benefit of the doubt somewhat. But right now, what Huntington's saying is, at least, worth thinking about.