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Starkey: Pirates, Burnett could work again

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Philadelphia Phillies pitcher A.J. Burnett talks with Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke (left) and pitching coach Ray Searage (right) before their game Friday, July 4, 2014, at PNC Park.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Philadelphia Phillies pitcher A.J. Burnett talks with Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke (left) and pitching coach Ray Searage (right) before their game Friday, July 4, 2014, at PNC Park.
Getty Images - A. J. Burnett went 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA in two seasons with the Pirates before signing with the Philadelphia Phillies this past offseason.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Getty Images</em></div>A. J. Burnett went 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA in two seasons with the Pirates before signing with the Philadelphia Phillies this past offseason.

Pirates/MLB Videos

Tuesday, July 22, 2014, 10:10 p.m.
 

The question isn't whether the Pirates should pursue A.J. Burnett at any cost. It's whether they should pursue him at all. It's whether they should be open to the idea of reclaiming him.

The answer, to any rational thinker, would be a firm yes.

Forget about Burnett's temper tantrum in October, when he learned he wouldn't pitch Game 5 of the NL Division Series. Who cares? Forget about whatever he said or didn't say on his way out of town. Who even remembers?

The fact of the matter is Burnett can still pitch. He can still “shove it,” as he likes to say, and he appears to be heating up at the ideal time.

Burnett's numbers have dipped in Philadelphia this season. That is a fact. Walks are up. Strikeouts are down. But he started the year with a sports hernia — he'll eventually need an operation — and, after blowing up Francisco Liriano-style in several games, has managed to pitch through it quite effectively.

For seven straight starts in June and July, the 37-year-old Burnett pretty much shoved it, not allowing more than three earned runs in any of those outings before a bad one Friday against the Atlanta Braves.

Two numbers from this month that are eminently likable: 42 ground balls and 28 strikeouts in 25 23 innings.

So I'll be watching closely when Burnett goes against the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday night. I want to see if that Atlanta game was a post All-Star-break blip or a pattern.

I would imagine the Pirates will be watching, too. Perhaps in person. They should be. If Burnett is right, he can help them.

Surely, general manager Neal Huntington cannot feel totally comfortable with his rotation going into the stretch run.

Questions abound.

Will Gerrit Cole return to his form of last September and October? Will he even be healthy enough to pitch two full months? Will Liriano rebound? Does this version of Jeff Locke have staying power? Is Vance Worley a viable option?

And can you fully trust Edinson Volquez, even if he has been better than Burnett for much of the season?

Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported Tuesday that Pirates players have “lobbied” management to bring back Burnett. I don't know about that, but it's easy to believe.

I'm convinced the men in that clubhouse would ride with Burnett any day. They know his act and aren't put off in the least. They know he can be a jerk on a given day. But he's their jerk. He's a harmless jerk who takes the ball every fifth day and pitches his butt off.

Part of the attraction of acquiring Burnett as opposed to, say, Ian Kennedy or a bigger name, would be that he presumably could be had for less. If the Pirates could avoid surrendering an elite prospect and get the Phillies to eat a significant portion of Burnett's contract, then the idea obviously becomes that much more enticing.

Would it happen? Not likely. But who's to say the Pirates wouldn't be the last team standing in pursuit of Burnett? Who's to say a few mid-level prospects wouldn't do the trick?

Still, complications arise with Burnett's contract. He is owed about $7.5 million in salary this season, plus deferred bonus payments of $2.75 million in January and $3.75 million in June. He will get $1.75 million in bonuses if he makes nine more starts this season.

His contract also has a $15 million mutual option for 2015 that becomes an expensive player option if the team doesn't trigger its half. That option can rise to $12.75 million if Burnett reaches 32 starts this season. He already has 21.

There is a $1 million buyout clause for next season, but that is only usable if Burnett makes fewer than 30 starts this year.

The Trib's Rob Biertempfel cited a source saying Burnett would welcome a return to Pittsburgh, though he has not demanded a trade or requested a specific destination. Obviously, the fan base would welcome him with open arms. Can you imagine the atmosphere for his first start at PNC Park? The place would light itself.

So, yes, you better believe I'll be watching Burnett's start against the Giants. If he shoves it, things could get a bit more interesting around here.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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