Burnett's decision surprises some former Pirates teammates

Rob Biertempfel
| Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, 7:21 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — This offseason, Jeff Locke got more phone calls and text messages than usual from his teammates. They all wanted to know if pitcher A.J. Burnett, Locke's mentor and best friend on the team, was coming back to the Pirates.

“They told me, ‘We don't want to call him, so we'll call you because it's the next-best thing,' ” Locke said Thursday. “Everybody was asking if I was trying to sway him to come back here. I said, no, I'll let A.J. make his own decision. He's a grown man, and he's not going to listen to a kid like me, anyway.”

Wednesday, Burnett agreed to a one-year, $16 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. The next morning, Pirates pitchers and catchers — many of whom had expected Burnett to re-sign with the team — held their first spring training workout.

“I was a bit surprised (by Burnett's defection),” catcher Russell Martin said. “He seemed like he was wanting to come back here. I don't know what all went into his decision making and don't really feel the need to ask him. He got a nice chunk of change, that's for sure.”

Martin sent a text to Burnett after word got out that he'd signed with the Phillies.

“I wished him well,” Martin said. “I hope he stays healthy and has a good season ... and, hopefully, we'll meet him in the playoffs and beat him.”

Burnett originally said he'd only want to play for the Pirates if he chose not to retire. But after the season ended, the 37-year-old right-hander kept silent about his plans for more than three months.

Not even Locke, who spent a few days this winter as a guest at Burnett's home in Monkton, Md., knew what Burnett wanted to do.

“It was a big mystery,” Locke said. “I know he stayed prepared all offseason — he threw, he stayed in shape. Yeah, we talked, but we never talked much about baseball.”

Burnett finally told the Pirates he would consider a contract offer — but they wouldn't be the only bidder. Burnett wanted to stay close to home, so he drew interest from the Phillies, Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals.

“Based on my conversations with A.J. and his agent, (the decision) was based on proximity to home,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “He can drive home after a game. That's what I was told, and I'm going to take them on their word.”

Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia is about 100 miles from Monkton, compared to 250 miles from Burnett's home to PNC Park. Also, the Phillies' deal is $4 million richer than what the Pirates offered.

“Some guys are upset about it, of course, because they had their sights set on him coming back,” Locke said. “I think it's unfortunate we weren't able to bring him back here, partly because he's a great clubhouse leader. But he's also a 200-strikeout, 200-inning right-hander, and that's kind of a big deal.”

Even without Burnett, the Pirates have plenty of candidates to fill out their rotation behind Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton. If he's overcome arm problems from last season, Wandy Rodriguez will get a spot. New arrival Edinson Volquez and Locke could compete for the No. 5 job.

“It could be one guy, it could be two guys to pick up the volume of innings (Burnett threw last year),” manager Clint Hurdle said.

“We'll miss (Burnett),” closer Jason Grilli said. “But, we can't hang our heads about losing one guy. We'll move on.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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