In an interview last night, Pirates GM Neal Huntington told David Todd of 970 ESPN (audio link) that the club did not make A.J. Burnett a qualifying offer because it could not afford the $14.1MM hit to its 2014 budget. (Hat tip to Bucs Dugout, where MLBTR's Charlie Wilmoth discussed the impact of Huntington's words from the Pirates' perspective.)
Though the Bucs will increase payroll, said Huntington, a qualifying offer-level salary occupies a "significant chunk of your payroll" for low-budget clubs. Comparing the Pirates to teams like the Rays and A's, he explained that building a winner in a small market is more complicated than just getting players at reasonably sub-market rates:
"It's not where we value A.J. Burnett, it's how do we build a championship team in the big picture. And as we look to fill some of the other gaps that we have, or we look to upgrade some of the other spots we feel we'd like to upgrade and should upgrade if possible, we felt that $14MM in one player was a bit steep for us."
Huntington sounded less than sanguine about the odds of a return, saying only that Pittsburgh is "still kind of trying to keep that door open" while declining to answer whether discussions were active. After earning every bit of his $16.5MM salary last year, Burnett would apparently need to accept a significant salary cut to don gold and black again in 2014. (After correctly forecasting that the Bucs would not extend a QO, MLBTR's Steve Adams predicted that Burnett would ultimately take a salary cut to $12MM on a one-year deal.)
On the other hand, there are certainly strategic explanations for these comments. Burnett may have burned some leverage by saying he'd either come back to Pittsburgh or retire, perhaps leaving more room for the Buccos to try and bust down the rate. As Huntington discussed in the interview, his club's narrow margin for error makes every dollar count, and any savings on the Burnett deal could make a big difference in the club's other offseason plans.
Huntington went on to criticize the QO system, noting that the Yankees and Red Sox made six of the thirteen offers. The system "didn't really do what it was intended to do," said Huntington, offering his opinion that the Indians and Royals probably hope that their offerees — Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana — decline.
On the issue of national TV money, Huntington noted that, contrary to the oft-repeated line, "it's not $25MM to every team." That is an average, he said: the team does not yet have its precise distribution, and the Commissioner could hold back some dollars for league-wide initiatives.
Either way, according to Huntington, small market teams won't get any relative advantage from the new money. Todd suggested that the high payroll clubs would begin to have luxury tax issues if they spent up their new cash, resulting in a net benefit to small-market clubs. But Huntington said the luxury tax "hasn't been that big of a drag on those [teams] that have gone over it," at least when they can avoid too many years in a row above the line.