There’s no doubt that Yankee fans have had their fill of Allan James Burnett over the past two years. Since signing with the Yanks for the 2009 season he’s been maddening, going from brilliance on one night to unwatchable the next. There’s been one excuse offered up after another, from Posada’s catching to Dave Eiland’s absence to undisclosed family issues. We’ve had two off seasons where two different pitching coaches have worked with him on his mechanics, each time with the promise of a new and improved AJ the following year, who as we know has never showed up. If anything, his results have only become progressively worse year by year and the moments of brilliance fewer and farther between as his fastball slowly gives way to the effects of his 35 years of age this January. Oddly enough, the main concern Yankee fans had when he signed was his health, and that may be the only thing that hasn’t been a problem for him on the mound during his Yankee tenure. Most fans have long since given up on seeing the pitcher he was that final year in Toronto, and would love to find an exit strategy. After years of making excuses for him the Yanks finally seem to agree, recently letting it be known they would be willing to pick up part of his 16.5M annual salary over the next two years to facilitate a deal. Thus far, that offer seems to have drawn little interest. The general consensus on Burnett is that the Yanks are stuck with him. But the recent trade market activity and taking a broader view of the offseason leads me to believe there may still be some hope of moving him.
The recent trades of Mat Latos, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez have delivered on the sky-high asking prices their GMs have requested, each netting 3 of the receiving team’s top 5 prospects. This is the type of haul Yankee fans have long envisioned giving up for a King Felix, yet none of the pitchers traded this offseason are anywhere near the level of pitcher Hernandez is. There are reasons why these lesser pitchers have been fetching a King’s ransom, largely because they’re earning little and have multiple years of team control left. But it also reflects a reality of the new CBA. With the abolition of the Elias ranking system and reducing of draft pick compensation for free agents, it makes less sense to wait to deal players the year before they hit free agency. The package you fetch will be less since the acquiring team will have less draft picks coming back if the player walks. As such, teams are dealing a commodity they rarely ever did before, players who are making little and are years away from free agency. Even the John Danks extension plays into this. Faced with a market that would offer little for someone too close to free agency, GM Kenny Williams opted to sign Danks long term rather than deal him and fetch little. The new CBA also raises the bar on becoming a Super Two, so players with extended arb years like Gio Gonzalez will become an increasingly rare commodity. Add all of this up and you’re left with a very expensive trade market going forward.
That’s where Burnett comes in. This new CBA reality could make AJ Burnett more attractive as an alternative for a team that needs a pitcher and doesn’t want to deplete their farm system in a trade or doesn’t have the necessary assets to make a deal. Teams that back out of the sky-high trade market and lose out on top free agents will eventually come around to view Burnett as a plausible and possibly preferable alternative to the dregs of the FA class. But this won’t happen anytime soon. More names will have to come off the board and I think the Yanks will have to offer to pick up more than the 8M they currently have on the table for the 33M owed. Of course there’s more than one way to pick up salary, namely by taking back an overpaid and under performing player in return. I would imagine the Yanks came up with that 8M number with someone like that in mind, since nobody could argue Burnett is a 12.5M per year pitcher going forward.
From a Yankee payroll standpoint, if you find a suitor and replace Burnett with Hector Noesi the impact on 2012 is negligible. Depending on how much salary the Yanks pick up in a deal and/or how much is coming back, you even free up the remainder of the money owed to AJ for an upgrade elsewhere. This was the rationale the Braves employed in dumping Derek Lowe on the Cleveland Indians and picking up 10M of the remaining 15M owed this season. The Braves have loads of young pitching ready to take his place and Lowe was a complete dud for them last year, so that deal had the effect of reducing their payroll by close to 5M. Burnett still has more upside left than Lowe does, one could see AJ still having a few good years left pitching in the NL West. I’ve heard people say they think AJ is untradeable, but if the Braves could find a suitor for the washed-up Lowe than I have to think the Yanks can find a partner for Burnett.
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