Hurdle’s Law vs Murphy’s Law—Fighting for the Future of the Pirates

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Pending a physical, the Pirates have agreed to a 2-year, $14 million contract with free agent lefty Francisco Liriano. This winter, in addition to Liriano, the Pirates have added catcher Russell Martin (2-years, $17 million) and retained pitcher Jason Grilli (2-years, $6.75 million negotiated with Grilli’s agent Gary Sheffield. Yes. That Gary Sheffield.) These moves follow last spring’s acquisition of A.J. Burnett from the Yankees and the summer trade for Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros. During the 2012 season, they also received cheap and talented youngsters Travis Snider from the Blue Jays and Gaby Sanchez from the Marlins.

Liriano’s acquisition mirrors the Pirates’ trade for Burnett. Liriano is a superiorly talented underachiever whose results will benefit from the National League and the big Pirates’ park. Looking at the club on the whole, the Pirates have a batch of young players that they’re in the process of surrounding with veterans who have playoff experience and have played for well-run, winning organizations.

The Pirates collapsed in the second halves of both 2011 and 2012; endured rightful public indignation at their assistant GM Kyle Stark implementing ridiculous physical and mental training techniques for their minor leaguers; and struggled to shake the hapless image that has been their albatross for two decades. The entire front office from team president Frank Coonelly to GM Neal Huntington to Stark were said to be in jeopardy of losing their jobs at the conclusion of 2012 and still aren’t completely secure, but owner Bob Nutting retained all three, staying the course along with manager Clint Hurdle and trying—not putting forth the pretense of trying, but actually trying—to win by spending some money.

They haven’t simply taken on onerous contracts of other clubs either, nor have they drastically overpaid in terms of years/dollars to get veteran help. The Pirates got Burnett from the Yankees for low level non-prospects while paying a third of Burnett’s $16.5 million salary in 2012 and will pay half in 2013. They got Rodriguez from the Astros for three nondescript minor leaguers and are paying $8.5 million of his $13 million salary. Now with Liriano, the rotation of Burnett, Rodriguez, Liriano, James McDonald and as early as 2013, Gerrit Cole, the Pirates can compete. Andrew McCutchen is a true all-around star and MVP candidate; Pedro Alvarez has tremendous power; and with Sanchez, Martin, Neil Walker and Garrett Jones, they’ll score enough to support that starting rotation. In the weakened National League Central—with only the Reds substantially better on paper—and the extra Wild Card, there’s an opening for the Pirates.

The front office is constantly on the precipice of doing something stupid and are discussing trading closer Joel Hanrahan. What they get for him and whom they use to replace him should be planned before pulling any trigger and I wonder whether Hanrahan’s pending free agency after 2013 is more of a catalyst to this talk than any potential return or concerns about the righty’s effectiveness. I would not trade Hanrahan unless there are extenuating circumstances or the offer is too lucrative to turn down. They’re going to need him.

As always, there’s a dubious nature surrounding the Pirates’ plans and intentions and much of their rise has been due to a vast number of high draft picks and not overwhelming wisdom from the front office. But in spite of the collateral stories and questioning glances, there’s much to be enthusiastic about in Pittsburgh and it’s not Sidney Crosby (if the NHL ever plays again) or Ben Roethlisberger. It’s McCutchen, Cole and the other youngsters the Pirates have developed along with their shiny new veterans. Players are no longer shunning the Pirates or going to Pittsburgh because they have nowhere else to go. Given the team’s reputation around baseball as a wasteland where young players run out the clock to free agency and veterans go for a final job, that new perception is not a small thing.

There’s still that hovering feeling of Murphy’s Law that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, particularly because of the still shaky status of the front office and the owner’s blindness to the harsh and exhausting realities of being a baseball player. It’s highly possible that Nutting’s expectations will outweigh what the team can accomplish and he’ll let his displeasure be known early if the team isn’t markedly better immediately. At that point, changes might be made in the front office.

Even with the looming dysfunction, they have enough talent to rise from the ashes of their 2011-2012 stumbles, use them as learning experiences, and contend for seven months rather than four. Murphy’s Law says that the Pirates will remain the Pirates, but that’s being counteracted by Hurdle’s Law—the law that dictates not taking crap and not making excuses.

They have the talent to win. And they just might.

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Who is Garrett Jones? Plus Other A.J. Burnett-Related Stuff

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Before anything else, I don’t think these negotiations are going to go anywhere. It’s just a sense that the Yankees and Pirates aren’t a match financially or in what the Pirates are willing to surrender to get A.J. Burnett. The Yankees’ tack appears to be, “We’ll pay some of the freight, but not all; you give us decent prospect A and B.”

The Pirates want the Yankees to pay almost the whole contract of $33 million and take negligible return.

Regarding Burnett’s no-trade clause, the Yankees wouldn’t be engaging in these talks with the Pirates (I don’t think) if there were any chance of Burnett rejecting the deal. Various people have said that because Burnett’s wife doesn’t like to fly, all of the teams Burnett has blocked are on the West Coast.

If Burnett really wants to get away from the Yankees, then I suppose going to the Pirates wouldn’t be all that bad. He’d pitch in the weaker league in a big ballpark without any expectations and be able to rejuvenate his free agent credentials for the winter of 2013-2014. For the Pirates, they could multiply the return by trading Burnett at some point in the next two years to a team that the Yankees wouldn’t trade him to like the Red Sox or Blue Jays.

Remember this: there were teams—inexplicably including the Yankees—pursuing Carl Pavano after Pavano pitched well for the Indians and Twins following his disastrous tenure with the Yankees; Burnett was never as bad on or off the field as Pavano.

I’ve been asked several times who Garrett Jones is and why the Yankees would want him.

The Pirates have apparently said that they’re not interested in moving Jones and certainly not to do the Yankees a favor in filling their DH slot and taking Burnett’s salary in the process.

But here’s what you need to think about when wondering why the Yankees would want Jones.

The Yankees need a relatively inexpensive left-handed bat with pop to share the DH role with Andruw Jones, Alex Rodriguez and other righty bats who’d DH against lefties.

Jones spent 11 seasons in the minors with the Twins and Pirates and hit 158 home runs before getting a legitimate chance in the big leagues—minor league stats. As a 28-year-old rookie in 2009, he hit 21 homers in 82 games.

Jones is arbitration eligible for the first time and due for a salary of something between $2.25 million-$2.5 million. The newly budget conscious Yankees could fit him into their salary structure and then pay a backup middle infielder. (For some reason, they want Eric Chavez back—maybe because he’s handsome? I can think of no other reason.)

Examining Jones’s platoon splits, he’s a good choice for the Yankees. Jones hits righties really well; has power to center and right field which makes him a fit for Yankee Stadium—hit trajectory link; and has had success against good pitching (he’s hammered Adam Wainwright, Tim Lincecum, Chris Carpenter, Matt Cain and Yovani Gallardo among others).

It makes sense for the Yankees to want Jones and some sense for the Pirates to want Burnett. But there’s no match for an exchange of the players along with Burnett’s salary so it’s not going to happen with one being traded for the other. In fact, I don’t think it’s going to happen in any configuration at all.

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Why Would A.J. Burnett Want to Go to the Pirates?

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I can understand why the Pirates would want A.J. Burnett; why the Yankees want to trade A.J. Burnett; and Garrett Jones is a cheap lefty bat who’d hit 20+ homers in Yankee Stadium as a DH.

But why would A.J. Burnett want to go to the Pirates?

Burnett has two years remaining on his contract at $16.5 million annually and can block trades to 10 teams. As the Mets proved last July with Francisco Rodriguez, the intricacies of those no-trade clauses aren’t as simple as they seem on the surface. K-Rod had the right to block deals to certain teams, but his agent at the time had yet to submit that list to the Mets and when he hired his new agent Scott Boras, the Mets reacted swiftly and decisively in dumping K-Rod on the Brewers, a team that K-Rod would’ve blocked a deal to.

Whether or not the Yankees would be able to do it without Burnett’s okay—or if he left the Pirates off the list—is secondary.

Would Burnett, at 35, want to go to the Pirates and have little-to-no chance at contending in 2012 and probably 2013? The Pirates are kindasorta on the right track with young talent coming through their system and Clint Hurdle instilling discipline in the clubhouse, but what’s the motivation for Burnett other than to get away from the Yankees? Getting away from the Yankees is something he has never acknowledged he wants to do.

Of course the Yankees want to get rid of him and maybe he’d like to go elsewhere, but they signed him to that contract and are going to have to pay a substantial portion of it to move him.

Burnett would presumably welcome a trade to any team in the NL West, back to Miami to play for the Marlins, the Reds, Cardinals, Cubs or White Sox. But why would he choose to go to the Pirates? If he goes to a good team in a big ballpark, chances are he’d put up solid enough numbers this year and next to be able to sell himself to some other team for a 2-3 year contract worth another $30 million.

Maybe the Yankees would pull a repeat of the Carl Pavano episode and pursue Burnett again.

But the Pirates? Why?

As is customary, the Pirates’ plans are haphazard and inexplicable. First they let it be known that they’re willing to discuss trading one of the best young players in baseball, Andrew McCutchen, then they’re discussing Burnett.

Is there a plan in place? Or is this a similar decision along the lines of the trading deadline in 2007 when the prior regime led by Dave Littlefield acquired Matt Morris and his onerous contract while the team was 20 games under .500, 14 games out of first place and headed toward a 68-94 finish. They traded a player they could’ve used in Rajai Davis to the Giants to get Morris and the $15 million remaining on his contract.

Is there something in the water at PNC Park that leads the Pirates to doing things that make no sense?

If the Yankees are giving Burnett away and paying his salary, then, yes, a team is going to take him. But it goes back to the question of what would spur the Yankees to do that in the first place.

The rumors discussed don’t make sense for anyone apart from the Yankees. But as we’ve learned repeatedly, that’s all that really matters in Yankeeland. It’s in line with the team’s, media’s and fan base’s air of entitlement that if the Yankees want, therefore the Yankees should get.

At least that’s they way they see it.

Never mind reality.

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The Scorpion That Stung Brian Cashman

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Everyone knows the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog.

A scorpion, looking for a change in his life, set out on a journey to find a new home. He came to a river and, when he couldn’t find a way across, asked a frog if he’d let him ride his back to the other side of the river.

The frog was suspicious that the scorpion was going to sting and kill him. The scorpion explained that he wouldn’t do that while they were going across because then they both would die; nor would he do it when they reached the other side of the river because he’d be so grateful for the help that he’d let the frog live.

Of course, halfway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog. The frog asked the scorpion why he did it and the scorpion said, “it’s in my nature”.

This fable reminds me of A.J. Burnett.

A thing is what it is and can be nothing other than that.

A.J. Burnett is a talented pitcher.

But A.J. Burnett is not a good pitcher.

There’s a big difference. Now, at age 35, the days of possible evolution are over.

They probably never really existed.

This is what he is.

The Yankees are desperately trying to unload Burnett and the $33 million he’s owed through 2013 and unless they eat a significant chunk of it or exchange it for another club’s headache/onerous contract (Chone Figgins for example), no one is taking Burnett.

When the Yankees signed him, they held a joint press conference introducing both Burnett and CC Sabathia. The idea seemed to be that because they were paying him like a superstar and treating him like a superstar, he’d become a superstar.

That hasn’t happened.

But Burnett is being blamed for being Burnett and it’s not fair.

What did they think they were getting?

Burnett’s been somewhat worse than what his career averages were when he arrived in New York, but not by much. It’s been within the margin of expectations as his ERA has risen by a run from his career level in the past two seasons, but that could be a natural decline for a pitcher in his mid-30s rather than any mental or physical limitations.

He’s wild, he allows a lot of home runs and his power fastball/wicked curve combination have never yielded the results over the long term that each and every one of his teams has expected. Of all the teams that had Burnett, the one that got the most value from him was the team that drafted him—the Mets—because they traded him for Al Leiter in February of 1998 and Leiter was a linchpin to the good Mets teams of the late 1990s-2000.

Was it arrogance on the part of the Yankees thinking that slotting Burnett into the middle of their rotation with a strong bullpen and a club that scored a lot of runs would gloss over his frailties and allow him to win 15 games a year, give them 200 innings and render it meaningless when he walked a load of hitters and had the occasional game in which he gave up 10 runs?

Possibly.

It actually sort of made sense.

In the winter of 2008-2009, they had the money to spend and Burnett was coming off a fully healthy season for the Blue Jays where he seemed to have figured it all out. The Yankees wanted to appease their spoiled and angry fanbase with some drastic and expensive signings to make up for their first season of missed playoffs since 1994 so they signed Mark Teixeira, Sabathia and Burnett.

They hoped Burnett would continue evolving and he regressed.

A pitcher like Burnett never figures it out and there’s no reason to blame him for that.

He’s consistent in his inconsistency just as he’s always been.

The Yankees might find a way to get rid of Burnett, but it’s never going to answer the questions of what they thought they were getting when they signed him. There’s no reason to be mad at him for being who he is. They paid for Burnett and that’s who they got.

He’s the scorpion that stung Brian Cashman.

Because he’s A.J. Burnett.

It’s in his nature.

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