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


Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

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.