This week’s questions: Who does A.J. Burnett help more?


Can A.J. Burnett help the Pirates?

A lot more than he could have helped the Yankees. But the question isn’t whether he can help the Pirates — a whole lot of mediocre major leaguers wouldn’t hurt — but whether the $6.5 million the Pirates will spend on Burnett could have been better spent to help them.

Probably so, because Burnett has long been to pitching coaches what Russia was to Churchill — “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild could have sworn Churchill was talking about Burnett’s stuff, which has produced only 121 wins in 13 seasons (two of them for teams which won the World Series).

The problem for the Pirates is Burnett’s stuff isn’t that good any more. According to mlb.com’s Matthew Leach, the average speed of Burnett’s fastball has dropped from 95.1 miles an hour in 2007 to 92.7 in 2011. Dick Cheney said conservation “may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sound basis for a sound comprehensive energy policy.” That goes for pitchers too.

Burnett’s 2011 was as messy as an oil spill — a 5.15 ERA, 31 homers, 25 wild pitches, 9 hit batters, 83 walks and at least one blowup with a manager who couldn’t watch any more. And this is the 35-year-old the Pirates hope will be the wise elder of their staff? Age and experience don’t always bring wisdom. In Burnett’s case, he’s still waiting, and like mail on Sundays, it wouldn’t appear it’s ever going to arrive.

Does all that mean Burnett is hopeless? Not necessarily. Burnett is durable — he’s topped 186 innings the last four seasons, even if they haven’t always been good ones — his strikeout rate inched upward last year, and several advanced metrics say Burnett pitched better than his numbers suggest. Plus, there’s the probability being discarded by the Yankees will motivate him, even if being a Pirate in mid-July may not.

Do the finances of the Burnett deal make sense?

Only in Greece, where the Pirates’ austerity measures are a business model.

The Yankees are paying Burnett $10 million not to pitch for them; the $6.5 million they save allow them to pay Raul Ibanez $1 million to create more outs than Burnett probably ever will. If MLB had an Occupy movement, that wouldn’t make the Yankees the 1 percent; it would put them in the one-tenth of 1 percent of franchises.

(Ibanez’s .289 on-base percentage was tied for 136th out of the 145 major league players who had at least 500 plate appearances last year. But at least he kept good company — he was tied with Carl Crawford and Alfonso Soriano, who are contracted to make $36 million more combined than Ibanez this year).

The Pirates will pay Burnett $6.5 million to pitch for them, which is approximately 40 percent of his check. But that still makes Burnett the highest-paid pitcher on the Pirates’ staff, which makes the Pirates not the 99 percent, but 99.9 percent.

Which is how the Pirates make money. According to documents revealed in 2010, the Pirates made more than $29 million in 2007-08, two seasons in which they finished last and lost 94 and 95 games, respectively. The Greek government might want to take note.

Who’s going to miss retired knuckleballer Tim Wakefield the most?

Doug Mirabelli, because any thoughts he had of a comeback are now kaput.

Mirabelli was a backup catcher with power who lasted 12 years in the majors, more than half of them as the catcher of Wakefield’s knuckleball. Mirabelli was 36 when he played his last major league game, or nine years younger than Wakefield was when he threw his last major league game. Which should unequivocally determine whether it’s harder to catch or throw the knuckleball.

The Red Sox tried to replace Mirabelli with Josh Bard in 2006, but that lasted seven games, in which Bard had 10 passed balls (Bard has had only 16 in 520 games not played for the Red Sox). It took a month for the Red Sox to bring Mirabelli back. (Mirabelli twice led the American League in passed balls, in seasons in which he caught 55 and 53 games respectively).

Wakefield won 200 games, 186 of them in his 17 seasons with the Red Sox. But since we’re already on a Pirate bent, it’s worth noting that Wakefield was the last player to have played in a postseason game as a Pirate, winning two games in the 1992 NLCS. Pitcher/poet Miguel Batista, now 41, pitched two innings in the regular season for the ’92 Pirates, but none in the postseason.

Wakefield earned two of his five postseason wins for those almost pennant-winning Pirates and he’s best remembered for one of his postseason losses –throwing Aaron Boone’s Game 7-winning homer in the 2003 ALCS. But Red Sox fans always forgave him: if you haven’t thrown a big home run, you probably haven’t thrown many big pitches.

Wakefield won two games in that same 2003 ALCS (Games 1 and 4), won 2004’s 14-inning Game 5, and most importantly, won time by sacrificing his scheduled Game 4 start to pitch the middle of 2004’s 19-8 Game 3 disaster — Wakefield’s selflessness preserved Derek Lowe to start Game 4. We know what happened next (a tip of the hat to anyone who can correctly name the Red Sox’s Game 4, 12th-inning winning pitcher in the 2004 ALCS without looking it up. Answer below).

Somehow, we can’t picture John Lackey leaving the fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse to do what Wakefield did.

Anything special about the Mets this season?

It’s the 50th anniversary of 1962’s 40-120 Mets, and apparently the Mets are trying to emulate them. Or so Mets fans say.

Yes, the Mets are a bad team, yes they could lose 90 games or more, and yes, money is as scarce as a good word about Bernie Madoff. But sorry, the Mets aren’t that bad, and the future isn’t that gloomy.

Over the last three years, the Mets’ farm system has promoted Jon Niese, Josh Thole, Ruben Tejada, Ike Davis, Lucas Duda and Jenrry Mejia. Wilmer Flores is on the way, though someone should instruct him taking more pitches isn’t going to hurt his value.

That may not be enough to envision a championship, but it’s a far cry from Rod Kanehl, Elio Chacon (76 walks with a .296 slugging percentage?) and Jay Hook.

The Mets might feel not having money is like having the take sign on 2-0, but take a look around the NL East. Better yet, the Mets can take a look at their own outfield. How’s Jason Bay working out at $16.5 million a year? Not quite as well as A.J. Burnett, right?

Do Mets fans really want to be paying Jose Reyes $16.5 million per year and wincing every time he gets up slowly after stealing second (OK, maybe they do).

Would Mets fans want to pay the fifth-best first baseman in the NL $25 million a year (think there aren’t some boos in Ryan Howard’s future)?

Or do Mets fans want to pay Jayson Werth $21 million a year? Or Edwin Jackson $11 million this year (you can build a franchise with the players Jackson has been traded for: Matthew Joyce, Daniel Hudson, Ian Kennedy, Colby Rasmus, although we’ll stipulate the Cardinals traded well, if only because Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel accompanied Jackson. What is it about Jackson that causes GMs to lose their bearings and act like middle-aged men enraptured by a stripper on a Law & Order episode?)

Money is nice, of course. But sometimes you can learn to live without it.

Unless you’re the Pirates.

Curt Leskanic was the Red Sox’s winning pitcher in the 2004 ALCS Game 4 with 1.1 scoreless innings. His ERA for the series, though, was 10.13

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One Response to This week’s questions: Who does A.J. Burnett help more?

  1. Mike says:

    All valid points on the Mets. Overspending on free agents rarely pays dividends as you note. And yes, the team will probably be statisically similar to the last two seasons worth of bad baseball, so why do we feel any worse now than we did at the end of ’10 and ’11? Mainly because there is no reason to believe this team can contend. This is probably the first time since 1997 where we entered Spring Training with zero reason to be optimistic. Even in some of those early 2000’s years that wound up sucking, we always had some hope. This year? None. This is not to say help isn’t on the way as you noted with the young players, (which also said nothing of Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler). The problem is the 2012 season is a bust before it even begins. Best case is players like Bay have a decent start, only to be sold off for pennies on the dollar in the continued firesale the minute they demonstrate any value to a contender. And that is what makes this season so disheartening before it even begins. In the past couple of years, we as fans had some cause for optimism, even if it was short-lived. Take Reyes, Beltran amd K-Rod out of the team picture and that best-case-scenario for 2012 winds up much less intriguing than recent years.

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