Tuesday, February 4, 2014

How the Pirates screwed the pooch, re: A.J. Burnett

This post is written for the benefit of anyone who can't be troubled to read baseball clippings, and somehow relies on FTC as a primary source for such news.  What the heck, I'll call these theoretical readers by the made-up names of Aaron and [REDACTED].

Aaron and [REDACTED], here's how baseball works, regarding the time the Pirates royally fucked up with A.J. Burnett:

Back in February 2012, the Yankees sent Burnett to Pittsburgh for two garbage players.  They also sent us $20 million.  You see, they had signed him to an $82.5m, 5-year deal, and he hadn't been stellar for them in the first three years of that.  So, with $33m still left on his deal, they figured it would be better to sublet him to us for $13m, than give him the ball and his full paycheck.

At the time, I was like "Oh neat-- a warm body for which the Yankees are paying!"  Nils was like "Yo, I think this guy is going to be pretty good.  He just needs to play in a different ballpark."  And I don't remember what Matt was like (I tried searching through my gchat, and this is what I found:

me: did you see my post on the AJ Burnett thing?
12:05 PM Matt: No
 me: it's up.
 Matt: Ok
end parenthetical digression.)

Then in Spring Training, a month later, AJ Burnett broke his face by bunting a ball back into his eye during a bunting contest.

Then for the next two years, he was really pretty good!  In fact, he was a huge reason why the Pirates stabilized into a contender.  He got a ton of strikeouts, and really bought into the team strategy of throwing more sinking fastballs, thus producing more groundballs when batters made contact.  The one thing he didn't seem to buy into was all the defensive shifts his infielders played.  You see, the Pirates were really good at run prevention this past year, and it was the result of positioning the infielders in non-traditional spots--  spots that the numbers tell us are the most likely places the ball will be.  There were a few incidents where the shift wasn't perfect (no one said it would be), and AJ could be seen blasting his fielders.  There was also the little incident of AJ sucking ass in game one of the playoffs this past year, then throwing a temper tantrum because he wasn't allowed to start the decisive game five.

So, in conclusion: for the past two years, this guy got paid by the Yankees to give us a lot of strikeouts and groundballs, and be kind of an angry dick.  He wasn't in that top tier of pitchers that we might think of as elite aces, but he was absolutely as valuable as a second-tier guy can be.  For more on that, let's turn it over to the numbers.

Fangraphs estimates that relative to a replacement level asshole, AJ was worth 3.0 more wins in 2012 and 4.0 wins in 2013.   3 or 4 wins may not seem like a big deal in a 162 game season, but think of it like this: It fucking is.

The way the playoffs are now structured, there's going to be a perennial cluster fuck for the two wildcard seeds in each league.  2013 was mercifully boring in the National League, but 2014 looks like it's going to be incredibly competitive.  We are built to be a fringe team, and we need every single win we can get.  Just for reference, here's last year's pitcher WAR table, lifted from fangraphs:

You can see that AJ is basically in a class of his own, in terms of shouldering the team's heavy lifting.  2014's WAR table won't look exactly like that (expect more from Cole, Morton, Cumpton, Wandy; less from everyone else, give or take), but it's not going to have a 3-4 WAR guy taking AJ's place.

So back to our AJ timeline...

After we got bounced from the playoffs, he went on the record as saying he was either retiring or returning to Pittsburgh.  Fine.  The next move should have been the Pirates'.  Under the new CBA, teams are allowed to make "qualifying offers" on their free agents, in which they put out a fair price, one year tender.  The player either takes it, or signs elsewhere.  If he signs elsewhere, his new team has to cough up a first round draft pick to the team that lost the free agent.  It's similar to the idea of restricted free agency in football (maybe they have this in hockeyball?  I don't care).

So the Pirates were in a position to make a qualifying offer.  It would have been around $14m for one year.  All the good analysts said it was a certainty that it was going to be offered.  It wasn't.

The Pirates instead spent $5m on perennial loser, Edinson Volquez.  Fine.  Whatever.  We'll cut this guy when he's bad, and maybe, we'll be lucky and AJ will come back instead of retiring?


AJ isn't just not-retiring.  He's not-retiring and now testing the open market.  And you see, he can go off and sign with the Phillies or Orioles, and we have nothing to say about it.  We don't get the draft pick, we don't get the AJ, we don't get anything.  Because we didn't make the qualifying offer.

Why didn't we just do the reasonable thing and offer him a one year deal at $14m?  The world's best guess is just that the Pirates are being cheap assholes again.

The commonly accepted figure is that 1 WAR costs between $5m and $6m on the open market.  That means that AJ wouldn't have had to be as good as he was in 2013 to make $14m worth our while.  Fuck, even if he was the pitcher he was in 2012, he'd still be outperforming that investment.  Also, the great thing about it is that it's ONE year.  I completely agree that you don't want to hamstring your books by giving a ton of money to old bastards-- but again, this is a ONE year deal.  This contract would have been less intimate than the No Strings Attached section of the Brooklyn Craigslist.  If there was ever a problem to just throw money at, it would be the problem of needing a win or two more in the standings, THIS YEAR.

This is the kind of thing the Pirates need to be getting right.  We've tried our hand at getting this shit wrong for two decades; it hasn't been fun.

Nilesh is off today.  Credit for this story goes mostly to him and all the other baseball bloggers that were less lazy than us in posting about it as it happened.

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