Burnett returns to Pittsburgh for one final season
General managers dream of this, right? A desirable free agent calls, tells you he wants to play for your team, tells you he will not negotiate with any other club.
Eureka! A negotiation cannot get any easier!
“Actually,” Pirates GM Neal Huntington said Thursday. “It was almost awkward.”
Yes, A.J. Burnett wanted to return to the Pirates, wanted to play one more year, wanted to win a World Series in Pittsburgh. In fact, on the day he declined his $12.75 million player option with the Phillies last November, he called Huntington personally to make his intentions clear.
Sixteen days later, the deal was done – one year, $8.5 million, or $4.25 million less than Burnett would have earned with the Phillies. But on Thursday, as the right-hander rejoined the Pirates for the team’s first official workout of spring training, Huntington chose an interesting word to describe the most amicable of negotiations.
“The last thing we wanted to do was insult him,” Huntington said. “At the same time, every dollar we can save in every contract we can re-allocate to another player who can make us deeper, a better club.
“It was almost a little bit more challenging to approach that negotiation vs. a negotiation where you know you’re competing against prior comparable contracts or other players on the market. This was kind of unique. It was in a vacuum.”
Burnett, 38, said the Pirates actually gave him more than he anticipated, considering that he went 8-18 with a 4.59 ERA last season — “You know me, I’ve been hard on myself my whole career,” he said. “Eighteen losses, you expect to get a couple of million, you know?”
Let’s not make too much of Burnett’s financial sacrifice — his career earnings are $135.8 million, according to baseball-reference.com. Remember, he left the Pirates when they declined to make him a $14.1 million qualifying offer following the 2013 season, then signed a one-year, $16 million deal with the Phillies.
Still, it’s human nature — and not just the nature of professional athletes — to reach for every last dollar. Rarely do players walk away from $4.25 million, even if that is the price of leaving a rebuilding club such as the Phillies for a contender such as the Pirates.
“It’s not like he turned down a couple hundred thousand. We’re talking about millions of dollars,” Pirates catcher Chris Stewart said. “It just shows his desire to be back in this organization, be back with a winner. That outweighs everything else in this game.”
Burnett won a World Series with the Yankees in 2009, struggled in ’10 and ’11, then revived his career after getting traded to the Pirates in 2012. The team ended its streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons the following year, and Burnett became even more enamored of the city, the fans and especially his teammates.
It’s easy to say now that he never should have left, but the Pirates simply could not afford to re-sign him. Burnett said he takes nothing back, and that he gave the Phillies his best despite suffering from a hernia that bothered him nearly all season and ultimately required surgery. He spoke highly of the Philadelphia players, said he particularly enjoyed getting to know second baseman Chase Utley. But part of him was still in Pittsburgh.
He texted with his former Pirates teammates all season, bantering with pitchers Jeff Locke and Gerrit Cole, soliciting “shoe ideas” from center fielder Andrew McCutchen, telling third baseman Josh Harrison he was proud of his breakout, keeping in touch with Neil Walker and others.
“Pitching against Pittsburgh, it was like a giant spring-training game,” Burnett said. “I’m focusing, I’m focusing, but it was more (difficult) than I expected. I thought I’d be able to turn the page easier.”
And then, as Burnett and his wife Karen watched the Pirates lose the National League wild-card game to the Giants, it all hit him.
“Why am I not there?” Burnett thought. “Shouldn’t I be there?”
Burnett said that Karen endorsed the idea of him returning to Pittsburgh, as did his two children, Ashton and A.J. Jr. From there, it was just a matter of officially declining his player option with the Phillies, and cutting a deal with the Pirates.
Burnett told Huntington, “Look, it’s not about money. It’s about me playing here, and that’s it.” He added that by taking less, he would leave the team with flexibility for other moves.
The Pirates later retained free-agent lefty Francisco Liriano on a three-year, $39 million contract, invested approximately $16 million to land Korean infielder Jung-Ho Kang and signed first baseman Corey Hart to a one-year, $2.5 million deal.
Will it be enough for the team to make its third straight postseason appearance and reach the World Series for the first time since 1979? Check back in October.
Whatever happens, this will be the final season for Burnett, who is fifth among active pitchers in innings, second in strikeouts and second in walks since his debut in ’99.
“The past couple of years, it was year by year,” he said. “I thought about (retiring) a few years ago in New York. But now this is it. This is my last hurrah. I’m cool with that.
“I’ve pitched 16 years now. A lot of people don’t do that. I don’t have an All-Star resume or anything like that. But there are certain lists I’m up there on. To be durable enough to pitch for that long . . . my body is a little different than it was, that obviously comes into play. But now it’s family time.”
“No tour,” he said, smiling. “I don’t want anything to be about me retiring. I just want to play ball. That’s what I told Neal and (manager) Clint (Hurdle). I don’t want any hoopla. I want it to be like any other year.”
Except that it isn’t.
No, it is one last year with a team he cherishes, one final chance to win another Series, one grand journey that became possible only after a phone call to his old GM.
“A.J. certainly left money on the table to come back to Pittsburgh. We’re humbled that he was willing to do that,” Huntington said.
Burnett is humbled, too.
“Not a lot of players have a chance to finish up where they want,” he said. “I was lucky enough where Neal wanted me.”