Saturday, 11 February 2012

Math and Baseball: Could the Yankees trade AJ Burnett to the Pirates?

As MLBTR is reporting, there is a shot that AJ Burnett gets moved to the Pittsburgh Pirates before the offseason ends.  Burnett, of course, signed a 5 year, $82.5MM contract with the Yankees before the 2009 season, paying him $16.5MM annually through the 2013 season.  He's also sucked in New York, putting up 3.5, 1.5 and 1.4 fWAR in those three seasons (even less by rWAR), with ERA's over 5 in each of the last two seasons, and giving up a shit load of homeruns.  It's understandable that the Yankees would like to move Burnett, especially if that's the kind of production he's going to offer at that price.  As is, he's probably the 6th or 7th best pitcher in the starting rotation depth chart for the Yankees, and trading him would make room for Freddy Garcia (presumably) in the #5 spot, as well as clear a roster spot.

If you can remember back to last summer's trade deadline, I examined what it would take to move Carlos Zambrano and his bulky contract to the Blue Jays, as was speculated, so I figured we can do the same here with AJ and the Pirates.

The obvious sticking point in this deal is going to be money.  Earlier this winter, the Yankees were willing to eat up to $8MM of the $33MM owed to Burnett in a trade.  Obviously nobody budged on that one, since anyone could just go out and sign a free agent for less money and more value.  Rumor has it that this number has been bumped up to the point where the Yankees would be footing upwards of $20MM in order to get a player in return, with Garrett Jones being their target in Pittsburgh, presumably to fill the DH spot.  I'd personally prefer to have Burnett over Jones if not for the contracts, and if I were Neil Huntington, I'd definitely be open to trading Jones since he's 30, has no upside, and is Mark Reynolds-lite, but hey, that's just me.

Anyway, according to that above MLBTR link, The Yankees think that the Pirates should pay more than $10MM of the $33MM owed to Burnett over the next two seasons, which would kind of be like the Pirates signing Burnett to a 2 year, $10-ishMM free agent contract (obviously it's not really like a free agent contract, since the Bucco's don't really have any negotiating competition, nor can Burnett block this trade; as such, the Pirates have all the leverage).  I feel like he could probably be worth more than that, especially playing in the NL and away from the AL East/pressures of Yankee Stadium, so that's right around fair value in a vacuum.  There's a catch, though: this isn't in a vacuum.

Pittsburgh has a ton of leverage in this situation, being the team willing to take Burnett from the Yankees' hands.  Pittsburgh doesn't really need to go out and get Burnett, or anyone, for that matter, because the Pirates' alternative to Burnett is some AAAA scrub who is going to be the difference between 73 wins and 74 wins -- obviously, the Pirates would rather win 74 than 73, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter a whole lot.  They're still going to suck, whether they get Burnett or not, so the Pirates don't really have a huge incentive to make this move, especially if Garrett Jones is involved.  Moving Jones would create a new hole in their lineup that wouldn't be overly easy to fill this late in the offseason, so if this deal doesn't come at the right price for the Pirates, they can just say 'no' to Brian Cashman and it's over, which is a probably a worst-case scenario for the Yankees.

It's basically just a favor to the Yankees, since it helps them get closer to the Luxury Tax mark, it opens up a roster spot, upgrades their rotation (addition by subtraction), and gives them an extra couple million to spend on a one-year deal for a DH.  Removing Burnett from the equation is worth a lot more to the Yankees than adding Burnett to the equation is worth to the Pirates.

The fact of the matter is that Burnett is coming off two straight disappointing years, and is 35 years old.  He has a history of injury problems (though not recently), and has battled inconsistency throughout the portions of his career in which he was actually good.  There's a chance that he's just finished providing solid production.  As such, I doubt anybody would offer him multiple years guaranteed on the free agent market, which should reduce what the Pirates would want to pay him in terms of how much of the contract they should absorb (i.e. Prince Fielder could have signed a 1 year deal for about $35MM this offseason if he wanted to, but not an 8-year deal at the same average value).

Burnett's projections on his fangraphs page shows something in the realm of 1.2 WAR, varying slightly depending on which projection you look at 1.  He hasn't exactly declined at a steady rate over his last few years, but I think expecting something like 1.2WAR in 2012 and 1 WAR in 2013 is fair.  At worst, he can provide something in the area of 200 innings per year with the use of 1 roster spot, which is certainly of some marginal value to Pittsburgh, who lost innings eater Paul Maholm to free agency (non-tendered), and will be without Charlie Morton for at least the start of the season.

2.2WAR these days nets you about $11MM in value (adjusting slightly for inflation for the 2013 season), so Burnett and $22MM for absolutely nothing (i.e. some 27-year old A-ball pitcher) is something close to the equilibrium.  The Pirates would then have to DFA someone to make room, plus they have to guarantee Burnett a roster spot for two years.  As result, I'd be comfortable dropping Burnett's true value, with all things considered, to somewhere around $9MM.  Given his $33MM contract, his adjusted value is [$9MM-$33MM, or $-24MM].

If Jones is involved, the Pirates would need to go find another 1B option in a depleted free agent market or fill the void internally, again, increasing the overhead costs of getting Burnett.   If the Yankees would like to overpay for a mediocre 1B/DH option in Jones, by all means, I'd let them, but at this point, that doesn't look like it's going to happen.  Still, Jones' value is in the range of a cost-controlled 1-1.5WAR, plus 3 more years of club-control, so about $8MM?

Basically speaking, if the Pirates agree to take Burnett, they're going to get him at a surplus.  If the Yankees wanted Jones for Burnett, I'd charge them pretty much the whole $33MM:  Burnett's value of $-24MM ($33MM-$9MM, including the DFA and a replacement 1B/OF), Jones' value of  $8MM, and an extra million or so to sweeten the deal, since the Pirates have enough leverage to not really need to do this deal.
If Jones actually can't be involved (i.e. if it's not just posturing by Huntington to boost the return), and this just turns in to a pure salary dump, I think quantifying Burnett's value at -$24MM is fair.  Again, the Pirates don't need to do this, so they could feasibly ask for a little more, but AJ Burnett and $24.5MM to the Pirates for some A-ball prospect would be the worst offer I'd accept if I were Neil Huntington.

1- It doesn't really matter what would happen to those numbers pitching in Pittsburgh, since that's not what the Yankees are selling, but I think we can expect an improvement in homerun rate, and thus pretty well everything else, if only by reducing the ability of the hitters in the NL Central.  Replacement level is adjusted, and, as Drew Fairservice at Getting Blanked points out, with help from Jeff Sullivan, Burnett threw a lot of meatballs last year.  Park Factors might not help a ton, but worse competition would.

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