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Kovacevic: A.J. Burnett deal will pay for Pirates

| Friday, Feb. 17, 2012

Seems there are two prominent schools of thought around here regarding the Pirates' pursuit of A.J. Burnett from the New York Yankees:

1. The Pirates will blow this. They won't meet the Yankees' demands, and they'll fall short again.

2. The Pirates will blow this. They'll overpay for this guy, and he'll be Matt Morris II.

Whichever result, obviously, will be catastrophic to the point of collapsing PNC Park.

Or everyone can just relax.

This will get done, as soon as this weekend.

And when it does, it will have been a bold, sharp major-league move by a franchise hardly known for either.

This is how the trade will go: The Yankees will cover roughly $20 million of the $33 million Burnett is owed over the final two seasons of his contract. The Pirates will cover the other $13 million. And because they'll cover so much, they'll part with no more than a couple of Class A prospects, neither among the system's best.

That's it.

The Yankees had pressed the Pirates to pay less money in hopes of getting a major-league player — Garrett Jones — or a top prospect. But the Pirates, admirably determined to give up money rather than baseball talent, never flinched.

They've known, no matter what silliness the Yankees floated through the media, that no other teams were pursuing Burnett at this level.

They've also known that the Yankees could use the cash. That sounds crazy when talking about the team with a $200 million payroll. But things are different in the Bronx under Hal and Hank Steinbrenner. There are limits to what general manager Brian Cashman can spend. Cashman's priority is to sign other players soon, and he needs the money that's freed up by this trade.

This is all good work by the Pirates, notably Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington, setting up this scenario and being set to capitalize on it.

The more meaningful measure of the trade, of course, will be how Burnett pitches here.

If he puts up ERAs of 5.26 and 5.15, as he did the past two seasons in New York, then this will be just another Lyle Overbay/Matt Diaz mess of an evaluation by the Pirates. But I don't think that will happen, and I'll unleash my inner stats geek to illustrate why:

> > Burnett is 35, and his fastball is down from a career-peak 99 mph into the 92-93 mph range. But he still struck out 173 in 2011, which is 31 more than any Pirates pitcher in the past four seasons.

> > His past four seasons have reaped inning totals of 221, 207, 187 and 190. The Pirates have gotten only two 200-inning performances in that time. Ask Clint Hurdle how much innings matter to a manager.

> > The new Yankee Stadium, a bandbox of a ballpark, allowed the third-most home runs in the majors in 2011. PNC Park, which always has favored pitchers (except when Albert Pujols was up), allowed the sixth fewest. Burnett allowed a career-worst 31 home runs last season, at least some of which would have been outs at PNC.

> > He gave up home runs on an insane 17 percent of fly balls. The American League average was 10.5 percent. Statisticians will tell you that's lousy luck.

> > Using the advanced metric xFIP — expected fielding-independent pitching — that removes all ballpark factors, Burnett's ERA last season would have been 3.86.

> > Four of the top 10 home-run hitting teams in the majors were in the AL East, where the lineups are relentless from first to last place. The NL Central will be a popgun by comparison, especially after losing Pujols and Prince Fielder.

I could do this all day.

Burnett will get a fresh start, too, away from a New York fan base that tormented him and a manager who discussed his possible demotion to the bullpen almost daily. In Pittsburgh, Burnett can be a No. 2, possibly a No. 1. And it's not like much is ever expected of anyone associated with the Pirates. He can relax and just pitch, maybe even pitch very well.

That's why, again, the Pirates deserve credit here.

They saw their existing rotation as legitimately five deep. As Huntington told me last week, "We don't need to make a move." They could have gone on yet another scavenger hunt for a bunch of No. 6 types — Ty Taubenheim, Brian Burres, etc. — or they could have ponied up for someone better, someone to push the rest.

They're trying. I know it's tough after 19 years, but let's try coming to terms with at least that much.

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