Pittsburgh Pirates Are to Blame For A.J. Burnett Departure

By Vinny Gala
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s true. The Pittsburgh Pirates had nearly every possible opportunity to resign A.J. Burnett but they never took any of the options far enough. This outcome is typical for Pittsburgh Pirates fans, missing out on yet another free agent by “an eyelash.” It’s smoke and mirrors, really, with the Pirates acting as the magician who is diverting your attention away from what’s really happening behind the curtain. Basically, the Pirates are trying to separate you, the fan, from your hard-earned money by advancing the illusion that they are committed to winning and are desperately trying to sign high-priced talent to help usher the team to another playoff appearance.

Allow me to explain the illusion, or the trick, if you will. The Pirates had a chance to extend a $14.1 million qualifying offer to Burnett following the conclusion of the 2013 season, and they did not. Instead, they reportedly made him an offer of only $8 million to return in 2014, which was never confirmed to be rejected outright by the Burnett camp. Of course, the club never made the offer details public, so the fans are left guessing who is telling the truth.

Fine, whatever. For argument’s sake, let us assume the $8 million offer was made. That’s still $6 million away from the value of what would have been the value of the qualifying offer. As you all know, $5 million went to the signing of Edinson Volquez and the other million went toward an array of different transactions (overpaying some arbitration-eligible players to avoid the arbitration process, perhaps). The qualifying offer is dead so you could consider that to be the dumbest offseason move in hindsight that the Pirates have failed to execute in recent memory.

Why? Well, dear reader, by extending the qualifying offer, the absolute worst case is that Burnett doesn’t pitch in 2014 and the Pirates keep their money. If he does pitch, he pitches for the Pirates or the Pirates get a draft pick from the team that signs him. Burnett either retains his popularity in Pittsburgh — via retirement or returning to the bump for the Pirates — or he leaves, Pirates fans hate him and the Pirates receive draft pick compensation. Everyone wins, even the Pirates.

Now, flash forward to this week. Burnett signs with the Philadelphia Phillies, the Pirates’ cross-state rivals, for $16 million. Reports surface claiming that the Pirates had made Burnett an offer of $12 million to return, which he’s obviously not going to accept because there are at least three teams in the mix to land him and he’s going to hold out for the highest bidder in the geographic region he wants.

So, what’s the illusion? Well, the Pirates’ offer of $12 million was high enough for the Pirates to legitimately market to the fan that they “just barely” lost another free agent to a larger market team, something fans have heard for years. The problem is that the Pirates knew all along that he’d never accept that offer and could paint Burnett to be the bad guy in this whole deal, when in reality, the Pirates could have had one of the better starting rotations in all of baseball or a draft pick coming their way.

Sure, it’s easy to look back and the Pirates can easily try to make the argument that they used the information in front of them to make the best decision for the team going into 2014 (signing Volquez?), but that’s a very familiar line, isn’t it? If the Pirates were truly committed to bringing A.J. Burnett back in 2014, why didn’t they just extend the qualifying offer in the first place? It would have only been $2 million more than they reportedly ultimately offered this week, and the risk of Burnett not returning certainly is minimal compared to the return the Pirates would get if he pitches or signs somewhere else. Why didn’t they offer him the $16 million Philadelphia did and defer a portion of it into next season as suggested by this article?

Simple reasons, really. There was never an intention to pay a big money free agent like Burnett to pitch for this team. In fact, the Pirates never even paid his full burdened salary when he was here — the Yankees footed the bill for that. Don’t let yourself get sucked into the propaganda the Pirates spew into the air about being committed to winning. They are only committed to winning when the bottom numbers on the income statement are as high as can be.

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