Harris: Burnett's value goes beyond wins

| Tuesday, April 2, 2013, 12:33 a.m.

If what A.J. Burnett said recently is true, this could be his last year with the Pirates.

Think about that when contemplating Monday's 3-1 Opening Day loss to the Chicago Cubs before a sellout crowd of 39,078 at PNC Park.

Before the start of the second inning, after Anthony Rizzo blasted Burnett's first offering well over the right-center field wall for a 2-0 lead, a Pirates' fan already losing patience with the home team shouted down to Burnett, “C'mon, A.J!”

C'mon, indeed.

Burnett did all that he could, which has been his norm since joining the Pirates, before running out of gas in the first Opening Day start in his 15-year major league career.

He threw two mistake pitches and paid for them. But it isn't like the offense gave him much help.

Burnett's strong pitching line — six hits, three earned runs, one walk and 10 strikeouts in 5 23 innings — was strikingly familiar. It also was something for the Pirates to build on, despite totaling only three hits and leaving six runners on base.

“Other than the one pitch to Rizzo, he kept us in the game,” said Pirates catcher Russell Martin, who caught Burnett in 2011 when they played for the New York Yankees.

You have to love that Burnett wanted to play for the Pirates. How many players coming from winning organizations can we say that about?

Burnett invoked a no-trade clause blocking a potential deal to play for the Angels in southern California, but he approved a move to Pittsburgh. Go figure.

Burnett's talents are subtle. His value to the Pirates reaches beyond the obvious, such as win-loss record, strikeouts and innings pitched.

He's difficult to overlook even when he's not on the mound, which makes you appreciate him more.

This is less about “chase zones” and “pitch counts” and more about the intangibles that Burnett gives the Pirates every time he takes the mound.

To lose Burnett when his contract runs out after this season — he recently told the Trib's Rob Biertempfel that could be a likely scenario — is to lose more than the Pirates' top pitcher.

“We know when he goes out there, he's going to battle his tail off,” second baseman Neil Walker said.

Without Burnett's contributions last season, those of us who had never before paid attention to Burnett would have no idea how good he really is.

It's not like the Pirates are in the playoffs every year — oops, my bad. Raise your hand if you'd accept the Pirates advancing to the playoffs once every 21 years.

Burnett compiling a 16-10 record with the Pirates in 2012 was like being a 20-game winner almost anywhere else.

What makes Burnett, 36, so special?

Burnett has 137 career victories with more than 1,900 strikeouts. He's pitched more than 2,100 innings. He's not only durable, he's durable and talented.

The Pirates keep promising that help is on the way, and you want to believe them.

Season ticket sales have increased 20 percent from last year, and last year was up 7 percent over the previous year.

Last year, according to Forbes, the Pirates made a $28 million profit.

Next year, television revenue from ESPN, Turner and Fox will result in an additional $25 million for each major league team.

That translates into more revenue for the Pirates, and another reason for Burnett to remain in Pittsburgh beyond 2013.

The Pirates' 40-man payroll for Opening Day increased from $61 million to $66 million. Those numbers must increase in 2014 if the Pirates want Burnett to stay.

During their transition, as the Pirates increase payroll along with improving their talent base, retaining Burnett is key.

Burnett is in the final year of a five-year, $82.5 million contract, so he doesn't need the money.

He's 36, so he doesn't need the aggravation if the Pirates aren't serious about building a winner.

C'mon, indeed.

Losing Burnett would inflict additional pressure on a roster still not ready for prime time.

The Pirates need Burnett more than Burnett needs the Pirates.

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jharris@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JHarris_Trib.

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