Pirates acquire starter A.J. Burnett

A.J. Burnett struggled with the New York Yankees, but is still capable of striking out 200-plus batters. (credit: Courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr) A.J. Burnett struggled with the New York Yankees, but is still capable of striking out 200-plus batters. (credit: Courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr)

The biggest trade the Pittsburgh Pirates have made in years brings A.J. Burnett to the Steel City. The Pirates have sent two minor leaguers — right-handed reliever Diego Moreno and outfielder Exicardo Cayones — to the New York Yankees for right-handed starting pitcher Burnett. The Yankees will take on $20 million of Burnett’s contract, leaving only $13 million to the Pirates.

This trade has Pirates fans and analysts reeling — but there is an important distinction to make when analyzing this trade. Is Burnett going to be the player who single-handedly ends the Pirates’ frustrating streak of 19 losing seasons? No. Is it certain that Burnett will be as effective as he was four years ago? No. Nonetheless, this is a great move for the Pirates.

On KDKA Radio 93.7’s “The Fan” last Friday, Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said that Burnett would be the Pirates’ ace. If you look at the Pirates’ starting rotation before the trade — Erik Bedard, Jeff Karstens, James MacDonald, Kevin Correia, and Charlie Morton — only Bedard has ace-caliber pitching. The Pirates gave up two minor leaguers, who got past double-A ball, in exchange for a pitcher who can lead the starting rotation.

Burnett is only four years removed from striking out 231 batters, and last year he struck out 173 in the American League. MacDonald led the Pirates in strikeouts last season with just 142. It is not a stretch to say that Burnett can hit that 200 mark again, now that he is back in the National League. Additionally, he will be in PNC Park, a pitcher’s ballpark, whereas Yankee Stadium is a batter’s paradise with its easily cleared right-field fence.

Pirates fans can hope for one of two things. The first possibility is Burnett’s re-emergence as a dominant pitcher, coinciding with some of the young Pirates hitters putting up big numbers. That could lead to a .500-plus record for the Pirates, and a possible title in a weaker National League Central division. The other possibility is that Burnett enjoys his two years in Pittsburgh, and subsequently speaks highly of the team, so that other players might be more open to join the Pirates in the future.

I understand the concern that Burnett struggled in New York, as he did not put up the numbers he did in prior years. Besides the aforementioned change of league and ballpark, joining the Pirates provides an opportunity for Burnett to put up solid numbers. The expectations in Pittsburgh are miniscule compared to those for the Yankees.

With the Yankees, the assumption is a World Series. In Pittsburgh, the season is a glorious success if the Pirates finish above .500. The decreased pressure will benefit Burnett. Not everyone is born to pitch in New York’s spotlight. Randy Johnson, Kenny Rogers, and Kevin Brown were all big-name, dominant pitchers who struggled in New York.

If Burnett puts up double-digit wins and a sub-4.50 earned run average, he might not consider it a personal success. But even if Burnett were to only put up such mediocre numbers as those, this trade would still be a success for the Pirates. This trade has made the Pirates better, but the degree of improvement is still a mystery.