Pirates starting pitcher Burnett embraces latest major-league challenge

Rob Biertempfel
| Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012

BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pirates have young talent in their starting rotation and plenty more working its way up through the minors. What they lack is experience.

A.J. Burnett has pitched 13 years in the majors and has started seven postseason games. He sent his cap to the Hall of Fame after tossing a no-hitter in 2001, but was jeered the past two years by New York Yankees fans who expected more than he could deliver.

The Pirates acquired Burnett on Sunday for two low-level prospects. Management hopes the right-hander's knowledge will benefit the rest of the pitching staff.

"It's a challenge I accept," Burnett said Monday, as he began his first day of spring training camp at Pirate City.

The situation reminds Burnett of 2008, when he was with the Toronto Blue Jays. Burnett and Roy Halladay guided a group that included youngsters such as Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum and Jesse Litsch.

"It's about how you carry yourself in certain situations," Burnett said. "I'll take the ball every five days. I'm not going to make excuses. One thing I can take from my time in New York is I'll never back down from anything. I'm not a cheerleader, shaking pom-poms. But I know right and wrong and, hopefully, I can share that with the younger players."

Burnett, 35, struggled to live up to up the hype in New York after signing a five-year, $82.5-million contract in 2009. He helped the Yankees win a World Series title that year, but went just 21-26 with a 5.20 ERA over the past two seasons.

"It was fun the first couple of years," Burnett said. "Then it got like, 'I'm never going to get out of this funk.' "

Poor control was at the core of Burnett's recent woes. Last year, he led the majors with 25 wild pitches and served up a career-high 31 homers. The problems grew worse the more he tried to fix them.

"I let a few too many people tinker with me, maybe," Burnett said. "When you let that happen, you start doubting yourself sometimes. You wonder, 'Am I doing it right• Is this how it's supposed to feel?' and things like that. In '09, nobody messed with me. I was able to do what I wanted to do on the mound, whether it was turn around, close my eyes and pitch upside down. Then you have a few bad games and you start changing and listening."

Pirates scouts say Burnett's fastball still has good movement, despite a slight dip in velocity over the past couple of years. They believe he has an effective breaking ball and changeup. And Burnett can still get a big strikeout when he needs one.

"He's a guy who has a lot to prove," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "We felt there are a lot of reasons he's going to be better this year."

Playing at PNC Park, which is more pitcher-friendly than Yankee Stadium, will help. Plus, Burnett won't have to deal with intense scrutiny and sky-high expectations.

"Having played in New York, I can say that playing in Pittsburgh is ... I wouldn't say easier, but just the pressure and everything that comes along with it is less," said pitcher Jeff Karstens, who was traded from the Yankees to the Pirates in 2008. "That should make his transition here a little bit easier. Anytime you can add a quality arm like that to the staff, it's going to make us better."

Burnett dismissed reports that he would have vetoed a trade to the Los Angeles Angels because his wife is afraid to fly.

"My wife flies everywhere. She loves to fly. Can I just say that real quick?" Burnett said. "My family's (in Maryland). My kids are 7 and 10 and in school. I'm not going way out there. I've got nothing but respect for that (Angels) organization and (manager) Mike Scioscia, but it's too far."

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