Can Pittsburgh Pirates Improve In 2014 Without A.J. Burnett?

By Thom Tsang
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Though it didn’t exactly end the way that the Pittsburgh Pirates envisioned, one of the most notable storylines in their breakthrough 2013 season was A.J. Burnett completing his two-year transformation from disgraced New York Yankees castoff to clubhouse and rotation leader.

And as all stories must come to and end, so too might this brief, but important chapter in the Bucs’ history.

In fact, if you read between the lines about the 36-year-old’s claims of uncertainty about his future, it might even be the end of the MLB chapter in the A.J. Burnett story. After all, as far as redemption stories go, it’s hard to ask for much more. It might have ended on the note of bitter defeat and being skipped in a do-or-die NLDS Game 5, but the veteran did was many would have thought was impossible: get an opportunity to start in the playoffs.

Not only that, but to do it while leading the Pirates’ rotation for much of the way as the veteran team ace? Talk about going out (nearly) on top.

Besides contributing with his best season in half a decade with a 4.0 fWAR campaign, one of the things that doesn’t quite show up on paper is the influence that the right-hander has had on the team’s young staff in 2013, one that included unlikely heroes like Jeff Locke and burgeoning ace Gerrit Cole, and one that survived the loss of Wandy Rodriguez and the rock-bottom plummet of James McDonald.

So the question is, has Burnett done his fair share to pass the torch?

While it’s hard to argue against a Francisco Liriano-Cole 1-2 going into next season (or the other way around), there is the sense of unfinished business when it comes to Burnett.

Yes, despite his up-and-down career, the mercurial righty has accomplished more than what most big-leaguers could hope for, owning a no-hitter and a World Series ring. That said, his numbers suggest a pitcher who is primed to age like fine wine instead of dropping off the face of the MLB world.

His velocity has held steady in this last two years, his stuff is still excellent (10.6 percent swinging strike rate), and he’s been able to reduce his home run rate (0.52 HR/9) and BAA (.228) by generating more swings at outside pitches (31 percent vs 28.8 in 2012). Despite giving up more line drives (19.2 percent vs. 18.8) and posting a higher BABIP (.305 vs. 294), he’s managed to put up better numbers across the board.

That indicates an old-timer still learning a few new tricks, and someone who still has much to offer the Pirates’ staff.

Most important of these is the fact that he’s still the most stable pitcher that the team would have if they were able to retain him for next season. Yes, the torch will eventually be passed on to Cole, and Jameson Taillon will get his shot, but Cole pitched only 117.1 innings in 2013. As for Liriano? Well, he did miss 35 games due to an arm injury, and head isn’t exactly his strong suit, so …

Say the Pirates move on with Cole and Liriano atop the rotation, with a (hopefully) returning Wandy Rodriguez and Locke following. For now, the team has enough depth to find an effective pitcher to fill that no. 5 spot, but if Cole were to be injured? Suddenly, one of the league’s best rotation is headed by a pair of heath question marks.

With Burnett in the mix, he can be that important piece that keeps things afloat, and mitigate any uncertainty that the rest of the rotation might contain. The ability to throw 200 innings is sometimes an underrated quality, but for the Pirates moving forward, it’s basically essential while Cole rounds into the next phase of his career and while the team awaits Taillon.

The ideal thing for the team to do might be to sign Burnett to a one-year deal with an option. Burnett’s journey in Pittsburgh is just about complete, but even an extra season would make a world of difference in the development of this team, given what they are hoping to accomplish in 2014 and beyond.

Thom is an MLB writer for Follow him on Twitter @BlueJaysRant, or add him to your network on Google

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