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Trade Retrospective: The New York Yankees trade A.J. Burnett to the Pirates

The Yankees were so tired of Burnett’s disappointing performance that they traded him for salary relief and lottery tickets.

New York Yankees v Detroit Tigers - Game 4 Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

For the second straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.

In February 2012, tiring of his lack of performance, the Yankees traded A.J. Burnett to the Pirates. They were clearly desperate to unload him, because all they received in exchange was salary relief — which the Yankees of all teams don’t need — and Diego Moreno and Exicardo Cayones, neither of whom were considered to be serious prospects. They even sent $13 million to help cover the rest of the contract.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will still be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties.

The Deal

The Yankees first signed A.J. Burnett in December 2008 as part of an offseason spending spree the likes of which the game had never seen. In a single month, the Bombers spent a combined $423.5 million on CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and A.J. Burnett, who penned a five-year deal worth $82.5 million.

Burnett was coming off a solid three-year run on the Blue Jays, over which he had a 4.30 RA9 (which was better in the mid-2000s than it would be today). He was the rare combination of pitcher who was adept at striking hitters out and at keeping the ball on the ground. Even though he was going into his age-32 season, a contract with $16.5 million AAV was manageable for a rich, contending team like the Yankees.

I would be remiss if I did not bring up the fact that Burnett’s DRA liked him a lot more than his run average during his time in Toronto, so much more so that his WARP (13.3) is about twice his bWAR (6.7) over that three-year period. The biggest factor in this gap is how hitter-friendly the Rogers Centre played in 2007 and 2008. DRA uses in-season park factors for its calculations, which one can argue skew the results too much based on one year of results. In contrast, Baseball Reference uses three-year park factors.

The contract certainly worked out for the Yankees in 2009. Burnett had his best season ever by bWAR, though his strikeout and walk rates worsened as opposed to his previous two seasons. Unfortunately, Burnett was terrible in the postseason, giving up 16 runs over his five starts. It didn’t matter in the moment, because the Yankees won their 3,524th World Series. But as it turned out, Burnett’s postseason performance was a harbinger of things to come.

Burnett’s performance fell off a cliff over the subsequent two seasons. He had a 5.56 RA9 and was a replacement-level player by Baseball Reference’s WAR. Obviously, that is really bad for a pitcher making $16.5 million per year. He did have 2.1 WARP in 2011, but again, DRA gave him an enormous amount of credit for pitching at Yankees Stadium.

Clearly Burnett was no longer suitable for the rotation, and the Yankees did not want to pay him that much money to be a reliever. Put another way, the team didn’t even think that Burnett was worth the roster spot anymore.

The Pirates were not going to contend in 2012, but 2013 looked promising. Even if that were not the case, the Yankees were offering Burnett for so little in exchange that no rebuilding team should have said no. Pittsburgh took Burnett — who had been outstanding as recently as 2009 — on a two-year, $20 million contract in exchange for two insignificant prospects. It is exactly the kind of deal that a small-market team like the Pirates needed to be making.

The deal looked good for Burnett too. He would be going to a more pitcher-friendly ballpark, and facing the weaker competition of the NL. Furthermore, it would allow pitching coach Ray Searage to possibly work some of his magic on him (though this was before Searage had the reputation he does today). If things broke right, the Pirates could have the option to trade Burnett for a much greater return than what they gave up for him.

To be fair, the Yankees would have been hard pressed to get better for Burnett at the time. Even had they offered to eat the entirety of his contract, they probably would not have gotten any significant prospects in return. But for the Pirates, this was basically a gift lottery ticket.

The Results

Burnett was much better after moving to the Pirates. He started relying much more on his sinker, which was indistinguishable from his fourseamer in terms of velocity, per Brooks Baseball. It led to a 3.78 RA9 over his two seasons in Pittsburgh, and his 26.1 percent strikeout rate in 2013 was the best of his career. He also got to be part of the first Pirates team to make the playoffs in 20 years.

The Phillies signed Burnett after he completed his contract. It was a one-year, $15 million deal with a mutual option for 2015. Mutual options are usually a joke, but this one turned out to be very interesting. If the Phillies declined their end of the option, Burnett could then trigger a unliteral player option for $7.5 million, with incentives that could add another $5 million. He famously left up to $4.25 million on the table to not play for the Phillies again and go back to Pittsburgh on a one-year, $8.5 million deal.

Burnett played his final season in Pittsburgh in 2015 and then retired. He finished on a high note, with a 3.51 RA9 and 2.7 bWAR.

Pirates Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
A.J. Burnett 2 3.9 $20
Does not include Burnett’s 2015 in Pittsburgh.

He was not a superstar, but Burnett was a solid pitcher at a good price. That is a great result for the Pirates.

There is not much to say about the prospects that the Yankees got. Diego Moreno’s only major league experience is 10 13 IP he threw for the Yankees in 2015. A few months ago he signed a minor league deal with the Rays. Exicardo Cayones never made the majors. He has been out of professional baseball since 2015. There really is no table to make for the Yankees. Moreno and Cayones were basically only included in the trade because MLB doesn’t allow teams to literally sell the rights to a player.

This was rather a simple trade that played out as expected. The Pirates took a gamble and hit, getting rotation help at a good price as a result, while the Yankees got salary relief that they did not really need.

This was the final installment of this year’s trade retrospective series. It was a ton of fun to write, and I hope you all enjoyed it too!

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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.