If it weren’t for Buster Posey‘s brilliant MVP season en route to earning yet another World Series ring with the San Francisco Giants, the NL Comeback Player of the Year honors may very well have gone to A.J. Burnett.
After all, he was a 35-year old righty coming off of a pair of disastrous seasons with an ERA over five in each, and his velocity was trending downwards while his home run rate spiked to a career-high 1.47 HR/9.
Yet, there he was, a 3.4 fWAR player with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012 that would have put him within the top 30 of MLB starters, ahead of names like Jon Lester, Jered Weaver and Yovani Gallardo. It was a miraculous return to form that saw his ground ball rates go back to those in his Florida Marlins days, and A.J. showed that his stuff could still play in the majors as he established himself as the Pirates ace through the season.
Naturally, the team wants more in 2013, even reuniting him with his former catcher Russell Martin.
The pairing hasn’t worked out so well in Spring Training, however. Burnett has been a mess over his first two outings thus far, and that might just be putting it lightly.
There were the four hits in one inning that led to four runs (though three were unearned) against the Tampa Bay Rays in his debut, and the righty’s second game was even worse, as Burnett walked in a pair of runs, on top hitting a batter and giving up a pair of hits – all in four-run one inning as well.
That’s the kind of maddening wildness and inconsistency that’s held his stuff back over most of his career, and that it’s surfacing early probably isn’t what the Pirates hoped to see, especially not from an aging pitcher whose diminishing velocity is forcing him to learn how to pitch without the upper-90s heat that he once had.
Still, it’s a learning process, and an increased usage of his knee-buckling curveball showed that he can make adjustments to find success – a veritable vet at 36-years old, Burnett will get the benefit of the doubt for now.
When things are going well in Spring Training, it’s easy to find positives. But when you’re pitching like A.J. is right now, the only solace is that it’s only spring, and that he may be working on things.
By the looks of it, there’s a lot to be worked on yet, and he’ll have to find more than one good inning in a future spring outing if he is to lead the Pirates rotation as the team’s Opening Day’s starter.