REPORT: Pittsburgh Pirates Interested in AJ Burnett; Potential Trade Package
Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports
Interesting news appeared this afternoon in the form of a MLB Daily Dish report, that had the Pittsburgh Pirates interested in AJ Burnett as a potential rotation upgrade. Despite being well back in their division race (8.0 games behind Milwaukee), Pittsburgh intends to be a buyer this trade deadline.
Upgrades in the rotation and adding an offensive shortstop appear to be their most pressing holes, however given their financial constraints, interest in Jimmy Rollins is presumably limited due to his cost both this season and next. The Arizona Diamondbacks and their multiple young, cheap shortstops would be a better fit.
However, as far as Burnett is concerned, it appears to be a good fit. He left Pirates this past off-season, but reportedly left the team out of his extensive no-trade clause in his new contract with the Phillies. They have obvious holes in their rotation, and plenty of minor league depth to make a deal happen without depleting their farm system.
The anonymous source listed in the report went so far as to call a Burnett-Pittsburgh reunion the “single best fit” for the pitcher, and that a deal is likely before the end of July. Combined with previous reports implying that the Phillies would take on players’ salaries in the right deals, a path to a trade seems clear.
The Phillies also appear to be settling into a sell mode this season, which tends to happen after dropping four games further behind your division leader in a single weekend.
What would a potential deal to the Pirates look like? Immediately, top organizational prospects Gregory Polanco, Jameson Taillon, and Tyler Glasnow are off the table.
MLB.com’s Number five prospect, Alen Hanson, is a high-minors prospect in an area without depth for the team (shortstop), so he’s likely expensive. Same with young catcher Reese McGuire. I’d also add into that group Nick Kingham, a near MLB-ready starter who is dominating triple-A.
Burnett isn’t the same pitcher he was last season, and he’s pitched through most of this year with a hernia. That’s not to mention the $7.5 million buyout following this season (although there’s a high likelihood he retires, as he was close to doing last season). All-in-all, he doesn’t have the clout to demand a prospect of those players’ values.
However, he’s still in the mid-tier of available trade deadline starters. Guys like Jake Peavy and Matt Garza have had considerable value in recent seasons. The best way for the Phillies to maximize their value in a trade like this is to pilfer from the Pirates’ areas of relative depth.
In this case, Pittsburgh appears to have their outfield of the future already in the majors. Andrew McCutcheon and Starling Marte are both inked to long-term deals, and they’re already trying to extend Polanco. Additionally, with as many pitchers as the Pirates have in their system, some lower level starters shouldn’t be an unreasonable ask.
The pattern of recent veteran starter rentals (Peavy, Garza, Ryan Dempster, et al.) seems to favor a return including one mid-high organizational prospect, a moderately lower secondary piece, and (depending on the quality of the pitcher) zero to two more low-minors high-performers.
The obvious Pittsburgh outfield headliners would be either 2013 first-round pick Austin Meadows, or 2011 second-round pick Josh Bell. Meadows has been injured for much of this season, but has a potential five-tool player upside, and despite lack of obvious major league position, he’s still far enough away that they will make him an incredibly difficult piece to part with.
After all this, Bell seems the logical choice to headline a deal. He’s without a clear future in his own organization, owns plus hit and power tools, and has had strong performances to date in high-A (.328/.375/.505 with 31 XBH, and only 40 K in 75 G). Any good deal for Burnett begins with Bell.
For a pitching prospect, Luis Heredia is the top starting prospect outside of the premiere group. He’s been ranked higher organizationally in years past, and even he isn’t separated far enough in value from Bell to be considered secondary piece (in my opinion).
A guy with potential is LHP Adrian Sampson. Sampson isn’t blowing people away with his fastball sitting 89-91, but his two secondary pitches have become solid-average. With command of three pitches and his displayed durability, he could well end up a starter at the major league level.
After struggling in high-A in 2013, he’s gotten that command under control, throwing 67% of his pitches for strikes. This has limited his walk rate, and he’s been able to keep the ball in the yard. As a result, he’s gotten good results with a 2.90 ERA in 93.0 IP in double-A.
I believe a third, less significant piece would be included in this deal, with maybe the ceiling of a future reliever/utility infielder type. They would mostly serve as organizational filler with an outside chance of marginal MLB contribution – call it a Player To Be Named Later, for now.
Were a deal to come to fruition, there’s a dozen different ways the Phillies and Pirates could construct a package of players for Burnett. Regardless of the specific names, players of the sum total talent described above would be a nice return for Philadelphia, and importantly demonstrate realistic expectations for the remainder of the season by the front office.