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Pirates should be willing to pay for A.J. Burnett's production in 2014

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David Maxwell

I was just on TribLIVE Radio with Daniel Dudley talking about A.J. Burnett, and found myself ranting and generally getting fairly upset, so now is probably as good a time as any to collect my thoughts.

-P- First, a list of the things we do not know. There are many. We don't know exactly why the Pirates didn't extend Burnett a qualifying offer, although an unwillingness to pay him $14.1 million certainly seems to be a factor. Perhaps the Pirates took Burnett at his word that he wanted to play in Pittsburgh or retire, and thought he might perceive the qualifying offer as a gesture of bad faith. We don't know how serious Burnett was about not wanting to play anywhere but Pittsburgh in 2014. We don't know why he's chosen to open himself to the market. We don't know how much money he would want the Bucs to give him to return. We don't know what the Pirates might know about him that we don't. There's a lot we don't know.

-P- It is, of course, possible that the Pirates will still end up signing him, and if they do, all the tooth-gnashing we're doing will seem pretty silly. We need to keep this in perspective.

-P- However, unless the Pirates know something about Burnett's medicals that we don't, say, they should be willing to pay a good chunk of change for him. Steamer and Oliver project Edinson Volquez will be less than half a win above replacement next year. They project Wandy Rodriguez will be about one win above replacement. Rodriguez's health is a big question mark. Jeff Locke also projects to be about one win above replacement. Burnett projects to be almost three wins above replacement.

That's a difference of about two wins. There is simply no reasonable argument that those two wins aren't worth paying for. The NL playoff races last year didn't turn out to be all that close, but look at the AL races. The Tigers won the AL Central by one game. The Rays and Rangers had to play a one-game tiebreaker before even getting to the playoffs. The Indians avoided that fate by one game. The NL Wild Card races this year could be closer, with the Nationals adding Doug Fister and the Braves (who easily won the NL East last year) losing Brian McCann and Tim Hudson. The Pirates aren't that likely to win 94 games again, even if we think they'll be good. Clay Davenport's projections (and yes, there are issues with them) have the Pirates winning 83 games, and the two projected Wild Card teams winning 85 games. This season could go in all kinds of directions, but based on what we know now, two extra wins are a very big deal, and that could be true even if we think the Pirates are, say, more of an 87-win team than an 83-win team.

Maybe there are ways around these calculations. Maybe there's some reason Burnett won't be as good as Steamer or Oliver think. But I'm not sure what that would be.

Maybe we take the position that Ray Searage is a miracle-worker, and that Volquez is likely to be, say, a two-win player. But it seems unwise to count on Searage pulling a Liriano with every starting pitcher who enters the Pirates' locker room, particularly when James McDonald, Erik Bedard and Jonathan Sanchez have failed on Searage's watch. (There were extenuating circumstances with all three pitchers, of course, and I'm not saying Searage isn't a good, or even terrific, coach. I'm simply saying he won't always be able to spin half-win straw into two-win gold.)

But even if Volquez does in fact pitch well, there's still space in the Pirates' rotation for Burnett, particularly given that Rodriguez might not be able to stay healthy. And, of course, given that Burnett was one of the best pitchers in the National League last year, full-stop.

Like David Todd likes to say, a lot of us here preached patience when the Pirates were a 70-win team. There was no reason for the Bucs to spend heavily to turn 70 wins into 72 wins. Now is different. There's a big difference between 83 wins and 85, or between 86 wins and 88. The Pirates could, certainly, still make the playoffs in 2014 without Burnett. But without him, their chances of making the postseason drop significantly.

It's worth repeating here that there's a lot about this situation that we don't know. The proof, ultimately, will be in what the Pirates have done by October. But if part of the issue is, as Neal Huntington has said, that the Pirates simply don't want to commit 18 to 20 percent of their payroll to a single player, I respectfully submit that now would be an excellent time to rethink that stance -- either the 18 to 20 percent part, or the part where $15 million or so for Burnett takes up 18 to 20 percent of the payroll to begin with. $12 million, or $14 million, or $16 million simply is not an unreasonable amount to commit to a very good player, especially on a one-year deal that would not hamstring the team in the future. (That Burnett would, presumably, want a one-year contract is an extremely important component of all this, because it's usually very difficult to get a player as good as Burnett on a one-year deal, and because such a deal would not become an albatross that would prevent the Pirates from competing in 2015 or 2016, when they ought to still be good.)

I hope the Pirates are willing to get used to paying those kinds of prices. These are not ridiculous prices to pay good, or even just decent, baseball players. If $14 million takes up too great a percentage of the payroll, perhaps the problem is not the percentage, but that the payroll is too low. As others have pointed out in relation to the Pirates, the Brewers just signed Matt Garza for $50 million. If the Brewers can do it, the Pirates ought to be able to. If the A's can acquire Jim Johnson at $10 million and Scott Kazmir at two years and $22 million, the Pirates ought to be able to. Obviously, we don't know all the details, because the Pirates haven't opened their books. But if the Pirates can't make these kinds of commitments, that confuses and saddens me.