In a trade that was finalized on Sunday, the Yankees sent A.J. Burnett, eating almost 20 million dollars of the 31.1 million dollars left on his contract (leaving the Pirates paying 13 million for 2 years of Burnett), to the Pirates for two minor leaguers, Diego Moreno and Exicardo Cayones.
Burnett is a guy who has been losing velocity on his fastball (95.9 MPH average in 2007 to 92.7 MPH in 2011) and has been much derided for a bad ERA (4.79 in his 3 years in New York). However, it seems like Burnett’s numbers actually don’t live up to how he has actually pitched, especially in the last two seasons.
In 2011, Burnett gave up the 11th least contact in the MLB among qualified pitchers, with some impressive names above him such as C.C. Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Cole Hamels, and Tim Lincecum. He was also high in the amount of swinging strikes he got, and was actually just below Justin Verlander. So Burnett still has the stuff to be good it seems. In fact, even though his strikeout rates have dropped in recent years, he still struck out 8.18 batters per 9 innings pitched in 2011, which placed him between C.J. Wilson and Josh Beckett. He also still maintains an awesome groundball rate, getting well over one ground-ball per fly-ball (league average is usually .8 GB per FB). These are some of the reasons his FIPs (Fielding Independent ERA) have been better than his ERAs at 5.26-4.83 in 2010 and 5.15-4.77 in 2011. His SIERA was actually really nice at 3.89 in 2011.
One thing that is also not mentioned is his durability, he threw 584 innings in 3 years in New York. This isn’t Sabathia’s 705 innings over the last 3 years, but it is more than the 515 innings his replacement Hiroki Kuroda (whom I love and I believe he was a genius signing by the Yankees) threw over the past 3 years. Depending on what metrics you value (if its just pitcher wins, which I don’t like but nevertheless, the more you are on the mound, the more of an opportunity you have to get wins), just pure innings can be extremely valuable, even if they aren’t particularly good innings. One example, which do you think would have the better Wins above Replacement in 2011, Ryan Madson with his 58 FIP -, or A.J. Burnett with his FIP – of 114? Well if you guessed Madson, your right, but not by much, as Madson had a 1.7 FWAR, while Burnett had a 1.5 FWAR. According to Fangraphs who has the better WAR over the last 3 years, Mariano Rivera or A.J. Burnett? Burnett. In 2011, super reliever Alfredo Aceves or A.J. Burnett? Burnett again. Unlike pitchers with much better stuff like Dallas Braden, Brett Anderson, Stephen Strasburg, and Jair Jurrgens (all who would be better pitchers than him on any given day), Burnett has been able to stay pretty healthy. These are some of the reasons that led Keith Law to call the Pirates “shrewd” for making the trade for Burnett.
One thing that is concerning is that he pitched better at home in all 3 years in New York, despite it being such a hitter friendly ballpark. The argument for Burnett would be much stronger if he was dominating on the road and being horrible at the New Yankee Stadium. The opposite is actually true.
For the Yankees, they simply aren’t going to “win” this trade because they had to eat so much salary. They are essentially spending 20 million dollars on two minor leaguers, neither of whom are considered serious prospects. However, Diego Moreno throws between 95-97 MPH and has struck out 11.20 batters per 9 innings. He is 25, has only reached (with a rather limited amount of appearances) AA, and passed through the Rule 5 draft untouched (not to mention having some discipline problems). He has been a pretty dominant reliever though, giving up less than a base-runner an inning and keeping the ball in the park. Of the 32 pitchers that threw 95 or more on their fastball on average, only 4 were below average pitchers according to FIP -. Velocity does matter, and Moreno has it, and it wouldn’t be a crazy idea for the Pirates to give him a shot in the big leagues some time this season. Exicardo Cayones is much less exciting, getting on base at a decent rate in A-ball (.372), but with no power (.380 SLG) and no speed (14 SB and 14 CS). His defense also leaves much to be desired.
Overall, this trade makes sense for both teams, but you have to like it if you are the Pirates, as it seems that Burnett still has something left.