According to CBSSports.com baseball writer Jon Heyman, the Yankees have finalized a trade that will send pitcher AJ Burnett and $20 million to the Pirates in exchange for two low-level prospects. After the two sides agreed on the terms last week, the MLB Commissioner approved the transaction on Sunday. To complete the deal formally, Burnett took and passed a precautionary physical as well.
Looking to free-up payroll, the Yankees have desperately shopped Burnett and the two-years and $33 million remaining on the lucrative contract he signed back in ’09. They nearly completed a deal with the Angels last week, only to have Burnett exercise his contract’s no-trade clause. This deal with the Pirates does free-up some budget room– but it does so at a painfully high price. The Yankees are required to cover $20 million of the contract’s remaining $33 million, netting just $13 million in relief.
Beyond cash, the Yankees received two off-label prospects, hard-throwing reliever Diego Moreno and outfielder Exicardo Cayones, from Pittsburgh. Cayones is a twenty-year-old Venezuelan import who posted a .228/.333/.325 triple-slash line while playing in the Gulf Coast (Class Rookie) and New York Penn League last season.
Moreno, 25, is the more intriguing prospect of the pair. Though he’s managed just eleven innings above A-ball, the righty shows flashes of brilliance when he’s on his game. His fastball sits in the 93-96 MPH range and his slider shows potential as a big league strikeout pitch. He’s also shown that he can throw strikes, though his violent mechanics and raw feel for pitching make him susceptible to bouts of wildness. He boasts a career 2.41 ERA and 9.8 K/9 through 194 minor league innings.
Make no mistake, the Burnett trade is a salary-dumping measure on the Yankees’ part. The team has watched Burnett battle inconsistency throughout his three-season tenure in New York, and with GM Brian Cashman looking to sign a left-handed hitter, he became expendable. This trade however, might hurt more than help in the end.
The Yankees added Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda to their rotation earlier this offseason, giving them seven starting pitchers (including Burnett) vying for five rotation spots. A cursory look at their depth chart’s talent would suggest that Burnett and Freddy Garcia would be the odd men out, with C.C. Sabathia, Phil Hughes, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda filling the rotation slots. However, considering Phil Hughes annual injury problems and Pineda’s youth (he’s twenty-three), neither pitcher can be relied on to pitch 200 innings next season. Kuroda, the rotation’s lone veteran behind Sabathia, has never pitched for an American League team and has spent his four-year MLB career in the extremely pitcher-friendly NL West. Considering the ugly track record of the Yankees’ recent veteran pitching acquisitions, with stars like Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson, Javier Vazquez, Denny Neagle and Kenny Rogers falling apart in pin stripes, the thirty-six-year old certainly isn’t a lock either.
For all of the fanfare, Burnett actually put together a very solid career in New York. During his first season with the Yankees, Burnett went 13-9 with a 4.04 ERA through 207 innings pitched, and helped lead the team to a World Series Championship. Though he struggled through much of 2010, he still provided a shoulder for the Yankees’ fragile rotation to lean on, eating 187 innings and starting 33 games.
Though Burnett posted a 5.26 ERA through 190 innings in 2011, he was actually a very solid pitcher for five of the season’s sixth months. Outside of an ugly August, Burnett went 10-8 and posted a 4.24 ERA through 167.2 innings pitched. His 3.86 xFIP (Expected-Fielder-Independent Pitching) suggests he was a much better pitcher than his overall numbers show.
Now that the free agent pool of hitters has dwindled to over-the-hill old guys, has-beens and wash-ups, it’s hard to believe the $13 million the Yankees “saved” in payroll can really be put to good use. The team is supposedly looking in to signing either Raul Ibanez, Hideki Matsui or Eric Chavez. Each of these players will demand between $1-4 million, though none of them can play adequate defense or run the bases. Of the three, none posted an OPS above .707 or a WAR above 0.0 last season. The Yankees are in search of a left-handed bat to platoon with Andruw Jones in their DH spot. Against right-handed pitchers last season, Chavez hit .255/.322/.365, Matsui hit .242/.318/.336 and Ibanez posted a .245/.289/.419 line. The Yankees’ best in-house option, twenty-eight-year-old Chris Dickerson, has posted a career .770 OPS vs right-handed hitters, and he can run the bases (very well) and can play adequate defense (he’s in fact a well-above-average fielder).
In the end, the Yankees would’ve been best served just keeping Burnett– at least until the trade deadline– and using his durability and experience as insurance for the question marks in their rotation. They didn’t save very much money by trading him (relatively speaking). Now that the free agent market has been shed of any real talent, the extra $13 million they did acquire won’t go very far in addressing their need for a left-handed bat. In the end, fifth outfielder Chris Dickerson would probably be their best bet in that area.