This has been a bizarre offseason in Major League Baseball. David Price was supposed to be traded, but the offers never came and he remains a Tampa Bay Rays. Robinson Cano was a sure bet to sign with the New York Yankees–then the Seattle Mariners offered him a 10-year, $240 million contract and off he heads to Seattle. Masahiro Tanaka was going to be posted, then he wasn’t, then he actually was, and the conclusion was exactly what everyone expected: he signed with the Yankees. But with Tanaka holding up the market, pitchers like Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez still find themselves on the street and Matt Garza only just signed with the Milwaukee Brewers. After the chaos that has transpired, what could possibly shake everything up even further? As it turns out, the MLB offseason did have one last trick up its sleeve. Recent reports indicate that A.J. Burnett has changed his mind about his Pittsburgh Pirates-or-retire proposition and will test the open market. Even more surprising, the Rays are involved. What in the world is going on?
The past two years, A.J. Burnett has been a very good pitcher. He has gone 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA, an 8.9 K/9, a 3.0 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 61 starts and 393.1 innings pitched. He may have turned 37, but his stuff remains electric, with his fastball still ranging from 92-95 MPH and his curveball one of the best in the game. There is not a team in baseball that does not wish that Burnett could be a part of their rotation if the price is right. Clearly that group even includes the Tampa Bay Rays. David Price is lined up to be the Rays’ ace with Matt Moore and Alex Cobb looking like two more potential frontline pitchers right behind him. Chris Archer also has the ability to dominate, and Jeremy Hellickson is primed for a rebound. Jake Odorizzi is a top prospect with nothing left to prove at Triple-A after a breakout 2013, but he is on the outside looking in unless the Rays make a move. The Rays’ pitching depth is firmly there, with talented pitcher after talented pitcher lining the organization. But that does not mean A.J. Burnett could make it even better.
The Rays are a long-shot to sign A.J. Burnett. However, their pitch may not be as insane as it would have been in years past. The Rays have arguably their best team ever and will begin 2014 as one of the favorites to win the World Series. Burnett showed by his willingness to retire earlier in the offseason that money is not such a major concern for him anymore. Could he take less money to get a chance at one more ring? Signing Burnett could be an organization-changing move. The Rays have never signed a pitcher remotely resembling an ace on the free agent market, and signing Burnett could set a precedent for future moves. The Rays’ “veteran leaders” are players in their late 20’s–Burnett could actually give them the experienced presence they are looking for to help mentor their young pitchers. Just imagine how helpful Burnett could be to pitchers like Moore and Cobb by showing them how he holds his curveball! The Rays have every incentive to explore an A.J. Burnett signing. It is not likely to happen, but the Rays have nothing to lose taking a shot.
If the Rays actually sign Burnett, things will get crazy. Could talks of a Price trade be reinvigorated? Could the Rays consider trading Hellickson more seriously? Could we see a shocking deal of a player like Archer? The Rays would have decisions to make, but first they will worry about whether bringing Burnett to Tampa Bay is truly feasible. If anything, the Rays’ interest in A.J. Burnett tells us that they are going to do everything in their power to upgrade their team, and even avenues they have not pursued like free agent starters could suddenly become possibilities. The present is exciting in Tampa Bay, and if the Rays keep being more aggressive in their dealings, the coming years could be even better.