The Burnett Dilemma

lester

cook

4-0, 4.57

8-7, 4.12

Well, it looks like we're just waiting for the dogpile now. It was fun while it lasted.

I didn't see much of the game - went to a pretty good school play tonight. I saw Holliday's blast make it close but the Rockies' comeback started in the 6th. They got 2 runs and had 2 on w/ 1 out, facing Mike Timlin. Ryan Spilborghs pinch hit for Cory Sullivan and hit a blast to straight away CF that Ellsbury caught up against the fence. The next batter was Jeff Baker who scorched a ball that should've been a 2 run double to left-center but Lugo made a tremendous leaping catch to end the inning. Holliday's blast got the lead to one but the Sox stretched it out and cruised in the 9th, thus setting up the inevitable dogpile.

As I said in the game thread, "sometimes you're the windshield and sometimes you're the bug." Make no mistake, the Red Sox are, by far, the more talented team here. But luck often plays a critical role. With a little luck, the Rockies would've gotten a couple more runs there, or maybe several, and it's a whole different ballgame. A 2-1 deficit w/ 2 more at home is so much different from being down 3-0. And Aaron Cook goes tonight - he last pitched on August 10. Hopefully, we'll get that Antonetti announcement we're looking forward to very soon but I hate the end of the baseball season. If so, he has a lot to consider. What day do pitchers and catchers report?

3 years ago, the Cards were finalists in the A.J. Burnett derby, only to lose him to the Blue Jays b/c the Jays offered him a 5th year, and an opt-out clause after the 3rd. The Cards' offer only went to 4 years and, to my knowledge, did not offer Burnett the ability to opt-out after year 3.

Let me start out by saying that I was opposed to signing Burnett at the time. Most here know that LB has stated that the Cards should have signed Burnett . I didn't then, and don't now, think it's a good idea to sign (even admittedly very good) starting pitchers to 5 year contracts - particularly those with a history of injuries. However, it looks as though Burnett will be shopped this offseason and the Cards, with their rotation problems and history of interest in Burnett, could be a likely landing spot. Of course, that history was w/ Jocketty at the helm but there's no reason to think that Antonetti or (gulp!) Mozeliak wouldn't be interested in adding Burnett to the rotation.

The difference now, of course, is that he effectively now has a 3 year contract. Or does he?...more on that later. Nevertheless, my interest in Burnett is considerably higher now than 2 years ago as it's no longer a 5 year contract. He's had 2 relatively successful years in Toronto. This time, the Cards would have to trade for Burnett, thus costing more than money, however. The rumors that he would be shopped this offseason began when his GM suggested publicly that, maybe, Burnett wasn't trying to return from his injury as expeditiously as the team would like.

Burnett is owed $12 million per year for each of the next 3 years and, as mentioned earlier, has the ability to opt-out of the contract at the end of this season. In evaluating Burnett, many will point to his 2 years in Toronto as being sub-par - having thrown only a combined 300.1 innings in the 2 years. This, the critics will point out, is testament to the fragility that many were concerned about 2 years ago. "$12 million a year is too much for 150 IP," they'll say and a fair argument can be made for such sentiment. They'll also point to the fact that he's entering his age-31 season - he's not getting any younger.

He is, however, probably the best starting pitcher available this offseason except for Johan Santana. If Schilling is the best free agent SP, Burnett was better last year, despite just 165 IP, and is several years younger. Garland may be traded; Dontrelle Willis may be made available but they're simply not as good as Burnett - and the Cards don't have near enough to get Santana. So Burnett is the best starting pitcher that the Cards have a realistic shot at this offseason. How good is he?

In his 2 years in Toronto, he's thrown 135.2 IP and 165.2 IP, respectively - not great numbers by any means. Still, in 2007, despite only making 25 starts, he was 39th in VORP and 47th in SNLVAR - both much better than anyone on the Cards' roster not named Wainwright. He was 5th in MLB in K/9. He also has had a ground ball % greater than 50% each of the last 4 seasons. According to MORP, in '07 his value was more than $15 million. According to the Hardball Times win shares calculator, his value was right at his salary - about $12 million.

Using azruavatar's method that LB used to evaluate the starting pitching free agents, Burnett's expected PRAR for '08 is 56 (better than Schilling's) and his expected win shares are 11.3 (about the same as Schilling). This puts his PRAR value at $12.3 million and his WS value at $11.9 million. So, despite the fact that he's coming off a season that is considered less than his best, one in which he was hurt and gave credence to all those concerns about his health, Burnett was STILL worth the salary the Jays paid him. He's averaged 150 IP the last 2 seasons; if he can increase it to 180, his value would go up considerably. He has 2 seasons of over 200 IP - this would add a ton to his value. If he only throws 150 innings, he'll probably still be worth the $12 million in his salary.

Of course, it's not that simple. The Cards would have to trade for Burnett, rather than simply signing him as a free agent. The Jays, even if anxious to unload Burnett, aren't just going to give him away. The Cards won't be the only suitors. You'd have to think that Duncan would have to be included in any deal. The Cards won't trade Rasmus and Reyes isn't anywhere near enough for Burnett so, if the Cards are to receive Burnett, Duncan would have to be the principal involved.

Last week I made the comment that

"It would be the height of irresponsibility to trade a productive, middle of the order hitter for a "proven veteran" with just 1 year left on his contract - i.e. Renteria or Jon Garland."
But Burnett has 3 years left on his contract. If the Cards trade Duncan for pitching, and don't use him to acquire younger pitchers in the mold of the Giants' Lowry and Sanchez, this is the type of pitcher they should consider - a solid, top of the rotation starter (#1 or #2), with multiple years left on his contract.

The problem is the opt-out. My original take on the opt-out was that it helped Burnett, to the team's detriment. Boy, I'm glad we didn't agree to that! But maybe not. The opt-out effectively turned Burnett's 5 year contract into a 3 year contract - just the kind of contract I liked from the beginning. This is only true, of course, if Burnett pitches well. If he doesn't or gets hurt, the team is left on the hook for the entire 5. Nevertheless, it's beginning to seem, to me at least, that the opt-out wasn't all that bad. Burnett's injury likelihood would increase as he gets older so he would be more likely to pitch well and opt-out, thus turning the contract into a 3 year contract. He would leave the team as the likelihood of his being injured went up. But here we are - with 3 years left and only 1 until Burnett can opt out.

The question is - should Burnett's contract be treated as a 3 year contract or a 1 year contract? If a 3 year contract, a Duncan (assuming the Jays would be interested) for Burnett trade seems much more palatable. If we see it as a 1 year contract - it looks like the Duncan for Garland trade I called "the height of irresponsibility."

We could, of course, make the trade and then renegotiate the contract - guaranteeing the final 2 years, thus making it a guaranteed 3 year contract. But we couldn't do this without adding some value to the contract, as the player's association (and Burnett, of course) never would agree to Burnett giving up his right to be a free agent at the end of the year w/o receiving anything in return. Additionally, if he does become a free agent at the end of the year, Burnett would likely receive at least a 4 year contract. So here we are again needing to guarantee 5 years ("maybe we could offer the opt-out after 3?," he says half-jokingly). Maybe the Cards could get the guaranteed 3 or 4 year contract by upping the value to $14-15 million per year. But will Burnett be worth that kind of cash in his age 34 and 35 seasons? He wasn't worth that in his age 29 and age 30 seasons. Would the Jays even allow the Cards a window to negotiate an extension before completing the trade? I doubt it - they won't need to.

The Cards have an opportunity this offseason to add a very good starting pitcher who is reasonably priced and not in his late 30's or early 40's. He wouldn't be some retread, or a Dave Duncan project and would make the Cardinals contenders (at least for the NL Central) next year, and probably in every year Burnett is under contract. We could sign a free agent OF to replace Duncan and bolster the rotation w/o appreciably hurting the offense.

But the details are tricky. Is he worth 4 years of a solid hitter like Chris Duncan? How should his contract be evaluated when determining the players to be traded? Should the Cards attempt to renegotiate the contract and, if so, under what parameters? Maybe Antonetti can begin to work on this dilemma tomorrow.

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