By John Perrotto
A.J. Burnett, overpaid and overrated are a name and two words that always seem to go together in the same sentence.
The right-hander hasn’t lived up to the five-year, $82.5-million contract he signed in free agency during the 2008-09 as part of the New York Yankees’ spending spree that winter which also included the signings of left-hander CC Sabatahia and first baseman Mark Teixeira.
Burnett had a solid first season with the Yankees in helping them win the World Series in 2009. He went 13-9 with a 4.04 ERA in 33 regular-season starts, though he led the American League with 97 walks and 17 wild pitches.
However, Burnett’s surface numbers have since tanked.
In 2010, he was 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA in 33 starts while leading the AL with 19 hit batters. Last season, his record 11-11 with a 5.15 ERA in 33 games, 32 starts, and his 25 wild pitches topped — bottomed? — the AL.
Burnett has become the primary enemy of Yankees’ fans. Yet the Pirates have interest in trading for Burnett and are willing to take on as much as $10 million of the $33 million remaining on the final two years of his contract, though they wisely refuse to part with any players of significance in a deal.
Is Burnett worth the Pirates taking on, even at a discounted price? We put that question to a scout who covers the American League East for a major-league organization and has seen Burnett pitch frequently throughout his three seasons with the Yankees.
“I’d take him at a third of his contract,” the scout said. “Now, I’m not guaranteeing that he would come to Pittsburgh and completely turn his career around but I do think he could help the Pirates.”
Coming to the weaker National League would likely be a boost for Burnett and so, too, would be getting away from New York and the inherent pressures of playing in the nation’s largest market. However, the scout also says that the 34-year-old Burnett still has the physical ability to be an effective major-league pitcher.
“Everyone talks about his mental makeup but his stuff is still good,” the scout said. “It’s not like it was 10 years ago when he was a kid with the Marlins but he still throws hard and his knuckle curve is a really good pitch.
“What he needs more than anything is to start over again. He’s gotten away from working off his fastball and attacking the strike zone. As good as his curve is, you’ve still got to work off your fastball in the big leagues. He’s become scared to throw strikes.
“He’s a high-strung guy and he needs extra attention from his pitching coach and Ray Searage, who is such a steady and positive guy, would work well with him.
“I hope the Pirates make the deal. I’d like to see how it would turn out for them and for Burnett. It would be interesting. It’d definitely be a potential low-risk/high-reward move.”
John Perrotto has covered the Pirates and Major League Baseball since 1988.
National writer, Baseball