Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

AJ Burnett, the Royals, & the Allure of a One-Year Contract

Coming into this offseason, there were three big-name free agent pitchers – Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, and Ubaldo Jimenez – and one big-name pseudo-free agent in Masahiro Tanaka. Following the 2013 season, it was obvious that the Royals would need to add some kind of impact starter (or two) in order to improve upon their 86-76 record last year. Early on in the process, however, it became apparent that each of those frontline starters would be out of the Royals’ price range, so Dayton Moore moved on and signed Jason Vargas. While Vargas is a steady presence at the back of a rotation, many fans have been hoping the Royals would go after one more pitcher to slot into the second starter spot. There are plenty of trade possibilities around the league, but since the organization appears reluctant to go that route, it seems more likely that turning back to the free agent market will be the preferred path, if another pitcher is added. Among the aforementioned premier pitchers, two of them have signed, leaving only the draft-pick-anchored Santana and Jimenez still available.*

*Of course the Royals wouldn’t really surrender their first round draft pick if they signed Santana, but they would be giving up their ability to collect a compensatory pick – and the accompanying draft slot money – that his signing with another team could provide.

Even with the two players’ depressed value, the Royals would still probably have to hand over at least 3 years and $40 million to sign either pitcher, both of whom come with quite a few risks. It seemed like the Royals were running out of options.

That is, until Tuesday afternoon, when reports surfaced that another impact starter could be opening himself up to the free agent market. That pitcher is A.J. Burnett.

When the season was over, it appeared the Burnett would either retire or return to the Pirates, with whom he had enjoyed quite a bit of success in the last 2 years, including several career-best peripheral stats in 2013. Last year, Burnett had a strikeout rate of 26.1%, a K/B ratio of 3.12, a 2.80 FIP, and a 2.92 xFIP. His 8.4% walk rate was the 4th best season of his 15 year career. Even factoring in that Pittsburgh is a National League team in a very pitcher-friendly ballpark, those are incredibly impressive numbers. Much of Burnett’s success came from his increased sinker usage, which resulted in ground ball rates of at least 56.5% in each of the last 2 years.

Now 37 years old, the free agent righty appears to want to return to the mound, even if it isn’t with the Pirates – who did not extend Burnett a qualifying offer after the season. Some have speculated that Burnett would like to remain close to his Maryland home, but I do think the right offer from the right team could draw him farther west.

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

And in my opinion, the Royals are the right team. The Royals should make him the right offer.

Even if Burnett’s strikeout rate drops with a return to the American League, he should still miss more than enough bats to be effective. Burnett has a terrific knuckle curve ball, and he generated more swings and misses on curve balls than any other pitcher in baseball last year. Plus, the Royals have arguably the best defense in the game, including at least average defenders at each infield spot. With Burnett’s ground ball tendencies, more balls in play won’t necessarily mean he’s going to give up more runs. Part of Burnett’s problems with the Yankees were caused by his propensity to give up the long ball, but now that he relies more on his sinker, that isn’t as much of an issue. Kauffman Stadium should also help keep some fly balls in the park. It’s really a perfect fit.

In the past, there had been some whispers that Burnett was a bad influence in the locker room, but I think the fact that he was the leader of a rotation on a playoff team should keep that lunacy at bay. He’s a fiery dude, he shows some emotion on the mound, and he wants to win. Sounds kind of familiar, no?

The final thing I love about Burnett is that he’s likely only looking for a one year contract, and with very few exceptions, there is no such thing as a bad one year contract. With no financial commitment beyond the upcoming season,  the team can move on from an underperforming player much more easily. It’s why I liked the trade for Santana so much after the 2012 season. There was a chance the move wouldn’t work out, but in that case, the Royals would only be out a little money and a fringe bullpen arm. But the payoff with such a deal, as we saw last year, can be enormous. In a one year contract, the benefits far outweigh the risk, even when the financial cost is high.

I mentioned on Twitter that I’d basically be willing to hand Burnett a blank check and tell him to fill in his 2014 salary. Obviously there’s some hyperbole there, but I’d absolutely offer him a $15-17 million contract without thinking twice. Going off of projections, I would expect Burnett to be worth somewhere between 2.5-3.5 WAR in 2014. If we assume the cost of a win above replacement to be roughly $6 million, the offer I proposed above would be approximately market value, so I might even consider going higher. And while the Royals have a record-high payroll already, they could easily trim some of that excess money to gain a bit more flexibility. If they could find takers for Luke Hochevar, Wade Davis, Emilio Bonifacio, or some combination thereof, they wouldn’t be too far away from what Burnett will likely receive. Again, it seems like an excellent match.

The problem, of course, is that the Royals are not the only team still in need of starting pitching. They’re also not the only team that doesn’t want to surrender a draft pick to sign one of Santana or Jimenez. And they’re also not the only team that wouldn’t mind giving out a high-value, one year contract to a pitcher of Burnett’s caliber. In other words, there will be plenty of competition to sign Burnett, so the Royals would need to find a way to show why Kansas City is the best place for him to be. Hopefully the combination of the team defense, home ballpark, market size (similar to Pittsburgh), Moore’s glowing smile, and a big, fat paycheck can do the trick.

Obviously, there are potential risks involved. Any 37 year old pitcher comes with risk, and if a lot of money is being paid to Burnett, that money can’t also be used to pay other acquisitions. However, Burnett has been very durable, pitching at least 185 innings in each of the last 6 years, and his velocity has remained pretty consistent over the last few years, so the potential for injury seems lower. Also, I don’t see the Royals pursuing any other expensive players, so if that money is available to be spent (in theory), why not give it to a guy who could bring a couple extra wins to the club?

Signing Burnett would be the perfect way for Dayton Moore to cap off his solid offseason. It would not only give the Royals a better chance of making the playoffs, it would also put them in position to potentially push the Tigers for the Central division crown.

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  • Royals_Fan

    I’m down with signing Burnett since Sanatana doesn’t seem at all interested in coming back to the Royals. Solidify your rotation,ale playoffs this year and at least Ventura will be ready to replace him next year and maybe Zimmer in the chances that Shields doesn’t return with the team.

    • cardsfanatik

      I’m not sure its about Santana not interested in coming back, I think Santana is like all of us who work for a living, and he is going to wait and see who wants him the most $. If I work at Shop A, and Shop B offers me 5 dollars an hour more, well, I’ll see you in the morning Shop B. Its the way of the world, and I honestly believe, if the money is even, he probably would return to KC.

      • Royals_Fan

        Which I totally understand that, I’m more inclined to work for some place that offers more money, too. But the thinking comes down to, a team that is less desirable will offer more money most of the time. Garza going to MIL for example..he couldn’t have looked at that team and thought, playoffs here I come! The Royals have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs this year, especially with Santana as our #2 guy. I, personally, would rather go somewhere I will most likely win, then some where I will most likely lose. But money rules all, which is really sad when it comes to people who already have millions.

  • unclejesse40

    Say the Royals signed Burnett this year and then offered him a qualifying offer next year and he retired, do they get the comp pick or does he have to sign with another team?

    • Hunter Samuels

      My understanding is that he would need to sign with another team in order for the offering team to receive a comp pick.

  • jessanders

    Love your thinking. Sign him to one year and be done with him. No qualifying offer, no extension, just one and done. We’ve got pitchers coming up, and either they’ll work out, and we’ll likely be in contention for a few years, or they won’t and it won’t matter if we sign someone else anyways.

  • jimfetterolf

    Burnett will go high, get paid #1 starter money. We can offer $15m but for anyone but the Orioles or Pirates it will take over $20m to sign a #1 starter. He’s just a distraction for the Royals, but will eliminate one team that may have been in competition with the Royals for Santana.

  • nathan82

    I follow two teams: The Royals and The Pirates. This makes me very conflicted about this. In a perfect world, Santana comes back and Burnett plays for the Pirates. If that doesn’t happen though, then I would rather see Burnett sign with the Royals. At the end of the day, I bleed blue.

    • Eric Akers

      I used to say the same thing. Loved the Bobby Bo, Andy Van Slyke, Chico Lind, Jay Bell, Barry Bonds, Sid Bream, Doug Drabek,… guys. BUt after many years, i decided I could not watch so much losing by both teams, and I had to give something up. So since the mid 2000′s, I have been a Royals only fan.

      Anyway, I was under the impression early on that he had gotten a QO. So now I am all for signing Burnett.

      • nathan82

        According the the Pirates bloggers, if he had received a QO he would be a pirate right now. If he ends up getting 18-20 million this season, that will have looked like a bargain…and he won’t be a Royal.

        • jimfetterolf

          From what I’ve seen, Pirates didn’t offer a QO because they didn’t think they could afford him accepting it. A suggestion I saw for the Pirates signing Burnett was whatever it takes for a year with $8m up front and the rest deferred in $2m annual payments.

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  • moretrouble

    I can’t see Kansas City doing much more than watching the A.J. Burnett sweepstakes. Sure, the one year deal would fit into their plan, but as others have suggested — at what cost. Regarding signing another veteran starter, the front office must guard against signing pitchers who will block their talented youngsters in upcoming years and become a drain on payroll. KC can make the playoffs with the guys they have now — yeah, they have to play well, but that’s what they’re supposed to do. And, signing Santana is no guarantee of the playoffs, either. It’s a tough decision — I’m glad I don’t have to bear the brunt of fan reaction if this thing blows up, LOL.