Sunday, 17 February 2008

The AJ Burnett Opt-Out Doomsday Clock

You're gonna be hearing about this damn thing all year long, so get used to it. Blair kindly brought it up in Saturday's Globe, our friends at the Mockingbird followed suit with a nice think piece, and now we weigh in.

Whatever Burnett does following this season, we will survive. Probably. So y'all simmer down now, y'hear?

Some possible scenarios (totally made up by me and with no basis in fact):

A) The club is competitive to the wire, Burnett is healthy and dominates all year long, then bolts town for a more money and years.

In this case we lose AJ and gain a high draft pick in return. $24 million comes off the books over 2009 and 2010. Someone else commits 4 years at $60 million-ish for his ages 32, 33, 34, and 35 seasons. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that we definitely should not be extending Burnett beyond his current deal. Looking at Burnett's most similar pitchers through age 30 over at baseball-reference, we've got this group of dudes:
  1. Chuck Dobson: washed up at 31
  2. Stan Williams: done as a starter at 32, one effective year in the 'pen after, then done by 35
  3. Juan Guzman: cool! ERA+ of 125 in his age 32 season, then done at 33
  4. Jose Guzman: no relation, washed up at 31
  5. Marty Pattin: became spot starter/reliever in age 31 season, effective to age 37
  6. Carl Morton: done at 32
  7. Kirk McCaskill: CanCon! Moved to 'pen age 32 season, 4 sucky years after
  8. Steve Busby: done at 30
  9. Jim Lonborg: injury woes at 33, some decent/average years through 35, shitballer at 36
  10. Kerry Wood: Cubs closer in '08?
It's not scientific or anything, but I think there's good reason to think that after looking at this list we might be better off if AJ left after this year, freeing up a fair chunk of cash before he starts a downward spiral. Gambling on him being effective for more than the next three years is not something a wise man would do.

B) Jays are out of it by the deadline, Burnett is healthy, effective and trade bait.

In this case there undoubtedly WILL be a market for AJ. The return might not be as tasty as one would hope. Some recent notable deadline deals for starting pitching:


* Matt Morris from the Giants to the Pirates from Rajai Davis and PTBNL Stephen MacFarland. (barf! this deal brought down wacky GM Dave Littlefield's reign of crappiness)


* Greg Maddux from the Cubs to the Dodgers for Cesar Izturis (bleech)
* Oliver Perez (and Roberto Hernandez) from the Pirates to the Mets for Xavier Nady (meh)


* Chan Ho Park from the Rangers to the Padres for Phil Nevin (meh)


* Victor Zambrano and Bartolome Fortunato (haha, note to self: future alias) from the Mets to the D-Rays for Scott Kazmir and Jose Diaz. (Collosally stupid move in which a league average pitcher was moved for a future ace; led the firing of Mets GM Jim Duqette)

* Kris Benson and Jeff Keppinger from the Pirates to the Mets for Jose Bautista, Ty Wigginton and Matt Peterson. (meh, Bautista is the only party here who's still on the same club, so I guess the Pirates won this deal).

* Brad Penny, Hee Seop Choi and Bill Murphy from Marlins to Dodgers for Paul Lo Duca, Guillermo Mota and Juan Encarnacion. (Finally a deal where a comparable talent to AJ was dealt. Penny was 26, about a year and a half from free agency, and had had 3 consecutive years of time lost to injury. This isn't much of a return. Lo Duca was flipped to the Mets for a pair of minor leaguers and had a couple of ok-ish seasons with the bat for a catcher. Mota was/is a turd sandwich reliever. Encarnacion had a 113 OPS+ for the Marlins in '05 before being flipped to the Cardinals. Pretty much a 4th OF talent now.)


* Jeff Suppan, Brandon Lyon and Anastacio Martinez from the Pirates to Red Sox for Mike Gonzalez and Freddy Sanchez. (This is an interesting one. Suppan was a former Bosox free agent-to-be having a solid year. Lyon is set to be the D-Backs closer this year, but is probably a Jason Frasor-y talent as a reliever. That netted Sanchez, a late blooming versatile infielder who won the NL batting title in '06, and Gonzalez, a very solid lefty closer. Very nice!)

* Aaron Harang, Joe Valentine and Jeff Bruksch from the A's to the Reds for Jose Guillen. (Ouch! Billy Beane really dropped the ball on this one: 45 games of middling production from Guillen for a future 200 IP, 120 ERA+ front end starter. Ouch!)

And the list goes on...

There really isn't an AJ-calibre talent on this list that would give us a good idea of what to expect as a return for a deadline deal this summer. I would conclude that this sort of thing probably has little better than 50-50 odds of breaking our way, with deep scouting and patience being the key to making it work. But JP did swing Jeremy Accardo for Shea Hillenbrand, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

A note of caution: Gord Ash orchestrated one of the worst deadline deals of all time involving a starting pitcher when he sent David Cone to the Yankees for pitchers Marty Janzsen, Jason Jarvis and Mike Gordon on July 28, 1995. Stone me! That was a stinker for the ages.

C) Burnett takes his annual mid-summer vacation and ends up giving us 20-25 mostly excellent starts as he had the last two years.

Seeing as how AJ's only had two completely healthy seasons in 7 years as a full-time big leaguer, the betting man would probably choose this option. This being the case, AJ might or might not choose to exercise the opt-out. Track record and all, there's a pretty decent chance he could find something better than 2 years at $24 million on the open market. But youneverknow, he might choose to stay. More of the same from AJ in 2008, 2009, 2010 really is fine by me: 20-25 very good starts is nothing to scoff at. We've got some kids (Litsch, Purcey and maybe someday Romero) who can be auditioned when AJ's hurt.

D) Burnett's arm is frigged beyond recognition and he misses most or all of the season.

In this case, we're stuck with him and the peanut gallery starts (well, ok, continues, but more vocally) calling for JP's head. This eventuality must've been discussed when AJ was signed, but at the time it was felt that the Jays needed to roll the dice anyway. Meh, damned if you do, damned if you don't. I wouldn't hold it against JP if it plays out like this.

So there you have it folks, let the Doomsday Clock speculation begin.

-- Johnny Was

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