A.J. Burnett plans to play this year, reports Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and the hurler may be open to pitching for a team other than the Pirates. This news throws a considerable wrinkle into the free agent pitching market.
Prior to today's news, the righty had been expected to pitch for the Pirates or retire, with the latter option looking increasingly likely. Now, he becomes one of the best arms available on the open market.
Burnett, 37, is coming off of two outstanding seasons in Pittsburgh. After a 202 1/3-inning, 3.51 ERA effort in 2012, Burnett threw 191 innings of 3.30 ball last year. He led all National League starters in 2013 with 9.8 K/9 and a 56.5% ground ball rate. Among free agents, Burnett had the lowest FIP (2.80), xFIP (2.92), and SIERA (3.10).
Burnett landed in the ninth position among baseball's top fifty free agents, according to MLBTR's Tim Dierkes. For teams looking to add impact without taking on long-term obligations, Burnett makes for a tantalizing option. That is especially so since, unlike other top rotation arms that remain, he is not tied to draft-pick compensation since the Bucs felt they could not afford to make a qualifying offer. As MLBTR's Steve Adams wrote before the offseason, Burnett would fit nicely in even the game's top rotations.
Pirates GM Neal Huntington has previously indicated that the club was not in a position to pay Burnett at the top of the market, though the club has made clear recently that it remains interested in a reunion. Commenting on today's report, Huntingon told MLB.com's Tom Singer that he was not aware of any new direction from Burnett but could not rule the possibility. "I can't say he has not [decided to test the market]. I'm not aware of every discussion there might have been," said Huntington. "All I can say is, he has been very public with his intent to pitch in Pittsburgh or not pitch at all." Huntington further said that the club's "process continues with A.J." and that there was "nothing new to report," Sawchik reports on Twitter.
The Orioles have been mentioned as a possible alternative landing spot for Burnett given his reported preference to play in close proximity to his Maryland home. Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun tweets that Burnett "would be at the top of the club's list." Other Mid-Atlantic clubs could presumably also be particularly appealing to Burnett, and the Phillies have reportedly also expressed interest, Sawchik tweets.
If Burnett sets his sights further afield geographically, many other teams could conceivably be interested. The Rangers have some interest in the hurler, tweets Richard Durrett of ESPN Dallas. Burnett reportedly nixed a deal that would have sent him to the Angels back in 2012 — the Yankees instead dealt him to the Pirates — leading MLB.com's Alden Gonzalez to peg the Halos (via Twitter) as a longshot to land him via free agency.
The entry of Burnett onto the market could be bad news for the remaining free agent starting crop and could also lead to movement in other segments of the player market. Pittsburgh reportedly will not sign a replacement pitcher if Burnett does indeed leave town, but could repurpose funds towards a first baseman. If he decides to head for another team that is in the market for starters, Burnett would have a significant impact on the balance of supply and demand. And if the Pirates look to add a bat through free agency or, perhaps more likely, via trade, an inverse effect could take result in that arena.