PITTSBURGH — A.J. Burnett believes his right arm has one — and only one — season left in it. The pitcher has no intentions of letting it go to waste.
Spurning a chance to remain with floundering Philadelphia, Burnett agree to an $8.5 million, one-year deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday.
”This is where I belong,” Burnett said. ”There are certain feelings you get, certain gut things and this was a no-brainer for me.”
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Burnett went 26-21 for the Pirates in 2012-13, helping the franchise return to the postseason in 2013 following a 21-year drought. He’ll receive $4.25 million less from the Pirates than he would have gotten from the Phillies under the player option he declined.
”I didn’t want to make it about money,” Burnett said. ”I wanted to make it an opportunity if I can come back and make the team better.”
Pittsburgh attempted to re-sign Burnett last winter but he opted for a more lucrative deal with the Phillies.
It didn’t quite work out.
Dealing with a hernia all season, Burnett went 8-18 with a 4.59 ERA in 34 starts. His 18 losses led the majors. He underwent surgery on Oct. 3 to repair the hernia and said he’ll be ready when the Pirates report for spring training in February.
”I’m feeling good,” Burnett said. ”I had relief the day I got out of that operation.”
Good enough to return for a 17th season. He’ll do it in Pittsburgh instead of Philadelphia after he and the Phillies declined a $15 million mutual option, and the pitcher then turned down his player option. Shortly after the World Series ended, Burnett reached out to Pirates general manager Neal Huntington to see if there was any interest.
”I told him I’ll pitch for you, I want to be in a place where I was really, really happy,” Burnett said.
Burnett provided the Pirates with a jolt of legitimacy when he arrived in a trade from the New York Yankees before the 2012 season, though his final moments with the club were not his best. The Pirates started rookie Gerrit Cole over Burnett in Game 5 of the 2013 NL Division Series against St. Louis after the Cardinals roughed Burnett up in Game 1 of the series, and Burnett fumed.
He spoke with manager Clint Hurdle for more than 30 minutes before he signed to clear the air and insisted any lingering animosity is gone.
”If I had to do it all over again, I would handle it a little bit differently with (Hurdle),” Burnett said.
Pittsburgh is searching for insurance in the starting rotation with Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez while also trying to bring back catcher Russell Martin. Huntington insists Burnett’s return won’t keep the Pirates from being as aggressive as they can be in the market.
”We still have interest in adding to our club,” Huntington said. ”A.J. gives us another quality starter. That doesn’t stop us from continuing to look to add other guys.”
Burnett served as a mentor to several members of Pittsburgh’s young pitching staff, including Cole and left-hander Jeff Locke, who became an unlikely All-Star in 2013 thanks in large part to Burnett’s guidance.
”Welcome back Batman,” Locke tweeted shortly after the deal was announced.
Despite Burnett’s mediocre numbers last season, Huntington is confident Burnett can regain the form she showed during his previous stint in Pittsburgh, where he worked with pitching coach Ray Searage to revitalize his career.
”We do feel the hernia hindered him some,” Huntington said. ”We do believe there were other factors, some indicators that we still think there’s a good pitcher here.”
One intent to help Pittsburgh, which fell to eventual World Series champion San Francisco in the wild card last month, get back to the World Series for the first time since 1979.
”This is where I want to finish my career,” Burnett said. ”I want to win a ring and I want to win a ring in Pittsburgh.”