I can't remember the last time an impending free agent publicly pledged to only play for his current team, reneged on that pledge, and was essentially feted by the club's fans for doing so. This is 2014, though, and these are the Pirates and A.J. Burnett, and here we are. Don't get me wrong, I don't think Burnett has any obligation to the Pirates, especially after John Perrotto reported that they severely low-balled him this offseason:
Still, it's mind-boggling to me that we haven't seen a large contingent of Pirates fans burning Burnett in effigy. I've seen nary a post or tweet arguing that A.J. Burnett is screwing the Pirates, but a ton hoping he'll come back, wishing him well, and thanking him for a great two years in Pittsburgh.
That, my friends, is a testament to both the classiness of Pirates fans and to how badly those fans seem to think Neil Huntington and Bob Nutting have screwed up the Burnett situation. Here's a sampling:
@Pirates RESIGN AJ Burnett and get our STFD & soul back ! Come on Nutting do the right thing.— Nice Hair, Dan (@DuperFan9) January 30, 2014
This AJ Burnett fiasco is driving me nuts. Pirates too cheap AGAIN. Biggest offseason acquisition=Hidden Valley.— Jason Konieczka (@JRKonieczka) January 30, 2014
Are they right? Have the Pirates essentially shot themselves in the foot in 2014 by not making a qualifying offer to A.J. Burnett, and refusing to pay the going rate for a pitcher of his caliber?
I think it's really hard to blame them, actually. As you can see from the chart below, the Pirates' opening day payroll, as estimated by Baseball Reference and Cot's Contracts, is actually going to be the highest ever for a Pirates club, and represents a 67 percent increase over where the club was at the start of 2011.
Indeed, the Pirates have had a rapid increase in their team's payroll, and even the surge in enthusiasm that accompanied the club's tremendous 94-win season only brought in 165,000 more paying customers last year than the 79-win team in 2012. It's likely that, (Frank Coonely's objections aside) given their under-paying TV deal , the club was already operating at or near a loss as that payroll has grown. While revenues will almost certainly increase again in 2014, it's impossible to know how much and for how long those revenues will continue to increase, and whether they will keep pace with what will have to be increasing player costs. Even now, it's hard to see the team will have enough money to retain or adequately replace Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin, Wandy Rodriguez, and Jason Grilli after this year.
To the extent it's fair to blame the Pirates for anything, perhaps it's for not making the qualifying offer to Burnett to limit his options in free agency. Given his uncertainty over playing in 2014, the chances of him taking it were low. Even if he had, the Pirates would have had a good pitcher for a year at roughly market value. This would have prevented them from jumping the gun on signing Edinson Volquez, whose 72 ERA+ and 0.9 WAR is by far the worst in baseball among guys who threw at least 400 innings over the last three seasons. Indeed, had the Pirates simply combined the $5 million they have likely wasted on Volquez to the $8.5 Perrotto reports they offered A.J., they presumably would have been in Burnett's ballpark. Instead, the Pirates had to bring in someone as insurance in case their former ace sat the season out, and are hoping they can fix Volquez on the cheap just as they did Liriano. It's worth pointing out that Volquez at his best was never Liriano, nor even Burnett.
If they can't fix Volquez, who is currently slated to be their fifth starter, the fallback options aren't unpalateable. Jeff Locke filled in ably last year when Liriano, Wandy, and Charlie Morton were hurt. If he fails, or if injuries again hit the Pirates, Jameson Taillon and Nick Kingham are both on the horizon and could debut as early as mid-season. The Pirates, thankfully, will not be hurting for options in Burnett's absence.
In more good news, while the Pirates have more or less treaded water this offseason, the division rival Reds allowed Shin-Soo Choo to walk and traded away Ryan Hanigan. The Cardinals remain the class of the NL Central, but the Pirates are still exceptionally well positioned to take one of the wild cards with full seasons from Gerrit Cole, Liriano, Wandy, and Morton.
I understand how hungry Pirates fans have been, and how last year's taste of the postseason has them hungry for more, but the overarching reality is that baseball is still a business. The Pirates need to balance their success with their obligation to stay solvent and to keep making money. Overextending themselves on A.J. Burnett in the short term does not help that long-term goal, especially with help on the way. The Pirates aren't screwed, and they haven't been misers. They've been cautious, and that caution will serve them well in the years to come as the payroll continues to expand and they try to win on a budget.