MLB Free Agency is under way and A.J. Burnett is free to sign with any team without the hinderance of a lost draft pick because The Pirates refused to extend Burnett a $14.1 qualifying offer. General Manager Neal Huntington insists The Pirates still intend on retaining Burnett. A.J. himself has stated he will only pitch for the Pirates or retire. However, the decision not to extend a qualifying offer to Burnett is a curious one. He is well worth $14.1 million on the open market. If Burnett has a change of heart and opens his services up to other teams he’ll have little trouble finding suitors. Burnett and his family make their home in Maryland. The Baltimore Orioles are right in his back yard and they are desperately searching for a top end starting pitcher. I believe not offering Burnett the qualifying offer was a mistake. I don’t think he would have accepted the offer anyway. Burnett would not risk signing a deal in which there was any chance he could be traded in season. The Bucs could have negotiated lower than the $14.1 million qualifying offer by dangling an ironclad no trade clause as part of the deal. By not making the qualifying offer the Pirates risk losing Burnett to another team like the Orioles without even receiving a compensatory draft pick.
The Pirates now begin their off season search to fill holes at first base, right field, and starting pitcher. The Pirates are interested in re-signing RF Marlon Byrd. If Pittsburgh can’t re-sign Byrd they likely will turn to internal options. Highly rated prospect Gregory Polanco is likely to be called up by midseason. They could use Jose Tabata as a placeholder in right field until Polanco is ready.
Resolving first base is a murkier dilemma. The Pirates have used a platoon at first base for the past several seasons with declining results and there is no high end prospect on the cusp at 1B in the farm system. The best options for an upgrade from the free agent market are Mike Napoli and Kendrys Morales. Both were given qualifying offers and are probably beyond the Pirate’s price range. The other free agent options would be James Loney or re-signing Justin Morneau and hoping he is more like the player he was for the Twins in August than the one that hit zero home runs in September after the Bucs acquired him.
The Pirates would only be in the market for a starting pitcher if A.J. Burnett retires or signs elsewhere. The Pirates have a lot of starting pitching depth but most of it comes with question marks. Burnett provides stability to the rotation. He can be counted on to pitch effectively over 30+ starts. Josh Johnson or Tim Hudson are free agents the Bucs could turn to as replacements for Burnett but they come with more risk at only a slightly lesser cost. More likely the Bucs will go shopping for a starter on the bargain rack. The Pirates covet ground ball pitchers so Roberto Hernandez and his 57.8% career GB% could be a fit. Other options include left handers Joe Saunders, Chris Capuano, and our old friend Paul Maholm.