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Pitcher Analysis: A.J. Burnett

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As promised, here is the analysis for A.J. Burnett. In most other free agent markets, he would be one of the top pitchers available. In this year's market, he is the consensus top pitcher available. Despite his very publicized ousting from the Marlins at the end of the year and his 0-4 record with a 5.93 ERA in September, Burnett still figures to be the most sought after pitcher in the market.

To further beat a dead horse, can anyone recall the last time the top two pitchers available in the free agent market didn't have a winning record?

A.J. Burnett - 28 Years Old - Right Handed Starting Pitcher

Performance:
2005 Totals:
ERA - 3.45
W-L - 12-12
IP - 209.0
H - 184
BB - 79
K - 198
HR - 12

H/9 - 7.9
K/9 - 8.53
BB/9 - 3.40
K/BB - 2.50
HR/9 - 0.52
BAA - .237
QS% - 72%

FIP - 3.09
xFIP - 3.30
DER - .702
G/F - 2.63
IF/F - 0.09

The surface stats are impressive; the expanded stats are jaw dropping. Burnett, two years removed from Tommy John surgery, had a tremendous 2005 campaign. After years of being touted as one of the most talented arms in the Majors, Burnett appeared to finally put it all together and had the best year of his career. The fielding independent ERA pretty much tells the story pretty clearly. Burnett dominated opposing hitters this season, induced a ton of ground balls, kept the ball out of the stands and he allowed three ER or less in nearly three quarter of his starts.

Burnett is one of those pitchers who can be effectively wild. He tends to struggle at times with his release point, which I will discuss in a couple paragraphs. He has the "stuff" of a #1 pitcher, with a devastating knuckle curve that he sets up with a terrific two and four seam fastball. He has a better than average slider and an average change up that if he could develop a little further, could push him into that next echelon of starters.

Health:

Since undergoing Tommy John surgery two seasons ago, Burnett has been relatively healthy. He did miss sometime last season with elbow tightness and a start this season with the same problem. Optimists believe that A.J. Burnett is healthy and because of the Tommy John surgery, his injury problems are behind him. Skeptics point towards his injury history and are wary, regardless of the surgery.

It's hard to predict injuries but you can use a player's injury history to see if a trend develops. The majority of Burnett's aches and pains coming up through the minors and his early seasons in the Major's were with his elbow. Couple those injuries with his Tommy John surgery and that must mean there is smooth sailing ahead. Right? Not necessarily. Burnett underwent numerous MRI's on that right elbow and they never discovered any significant structural damage until 2003.

Pre-TJ, Burnett used to have one of the most violent and erratic windups in baseball. Think of a monkey at the zoo having a seizure as he was throwing feces at innocent observers. He had a widely inconsistent release point, often throwing across his body and using a variety of arm angles. This can cause (and in A.J.'s case caused) a weakening of the elbow ligament and can eventually lead to similar problems as the problems that A.J. experienced. Post-TJ, Burnett has smoothed his mechanics some, sticking to a ¾ release point and refining his wind-up even further. He still needs work to help refine his wind-up and delivery to help prevent stress on the elbow and to also help his release point.

Conclusion:

I pretty much hinted at this in the Millwood post, but for those who may have missed the subtleties, it's hard to ignore the potential of A.J. Burnett. He is the best pitcher currently in the free agent market (foreshadowing?) and may be on the cusp of a stretch of dominance. If the money being offered to Kevin Millwood equaled the money being offered to A.J. Burnett, it's a no-brainer in my opinion. I'd take A.J. Burnett every time. He hasn't reached his ceiling and with some tweaks to his delivery and release point along with some work on his change-up, he could easily earn that ace label.

However, money is an obstacle this offseason. While we all wish the M's were made of money and were willing to open up the wallet and dig into secret compartment where we all hide that extra stash, they have never shown a willingness to do that and probably won't start this season. This team just isn't a starting pitcher away from returning to respectability, let alone .500. They have a hole to fill in left field and three holes to fill in the rotation. The early predictions for what Millwood and Burnett may fetch on the market appear to be a fair initial assessment, with Millwood getting somewhere in the ballpark of 3 years at $9-11 million per and Burnett getting around 5 years at $14-15 million per. (Again, this is just an early guess, but it appears to be the common perception of their value.) That's a significant difference and with the M's needing to invest in multiple positions again this offseason, Millwood may be the more economical choice. The best choice, hard to tell, but it would allow the M's a little more wiggle room in adding additional talent.

If I were Bill Bavasi, I would pursue both of them. Similar to the way he pursued both Carlos Delgado and Richie Sexson last season, make strong initial offers, let them know you're interested and let talks move on from there. If one of them decides to sign elsewhere, turn your focus towards the other pitcher. If one has outrageous contract demands, focus towards the other. If they both want to come to Seattle, play them against each other and pick the one you feel best suits the team financially and in the future. Or hell, sign them both.