In the past few days, the Pirates have been linked to Edwin Jackson and AJ Burnett as possible targets to improve their starting rotation. On Monday, the Pirates released information that they had offered Jackson a 3 year, $30 million contract before he decided to sign with the Washington Nationals for 1 year, $11 million.
Despite pitching for six teams in his young career, Jackson would have undoubtedly bolstered the Pirates' rotation. He has a consistent mid-90s fastball with late movement and a solid slider in the mid-80s; he had 44% ground balls last season and limited his walks to 2.8 per 9 innings. At an age where many pitchers' careers begin to skyrocket (I.E. Roy Halladay), Jackson would have been the perfect staple in the Pirates' rotation over the next three years.
But he didn't sign in Pittsburgh. He didn't take a three year deal; it seems he wanted to play for a team he thought he could compete with. Seemingly, he would only play for a team like the Pittsburgh Pirates if they overpaid him. With an extraordinary amount of talent coming through the system and a dire need to give Andrew McCutchen an extension to his contract, spending at least $15 million would have been an unwise decision. Although Edwin Jackson has a lot of talent, he is far from an elite pitcher and worth much less than $10 million, in my opinion. Keep in mind, he's had issues with his command as his BB/9 ratio and WHIP have fluctuated from season to season.
Since Edwin Jackson was out of the equation, ESPN's Buster Olney and Fox Sports correspondent Ken Rosenthal, rumored the Pirates to have interest in Yankees' starter AJ Burnett. In fact, they both wrote about how the Pirates were the ONLY team that would have interest in the veteran righty.
To acquire Burnett, the Pirates would need to initiate a trade with the Yankees. In such a trade, they would likely agree to pay most of the remaining $33 million on Burnett's contract. Olney indicated that Garret Jones would be a potential trade piece. While the Yankees would get a platoon/DH player, the Pirates would get a 35 year old pitcher with a 5.00+ ERA in each of the last two seasons. While many are quick to point out that he pitched in Yankee stadium (comparable to Williamsport in terms of dimensions), it is notable that last season his road ERA was the concern, as it ballooned to 6.28.
Nevertheless, Burnett has an explosive fastball and he has a sharp curveball that racked up 173 strikeouts last year (31 more than James McDonald). If the Pirates can send a bench player and receive a player of this caliber, what is the risk? In the worst case scenario, he pitches poorly and is eventually dealt for a low-grade minor leaguer. In the best case scenario, he escapes the New York spotlight and delivers a solid season before the end of his career. Unlike Matt Morris, Burnett certainly has the talent to put up one more outstanding season.
So, why are the Pirates doing this? Why does it matter if they go after Edwin Jackson or AJ Burnett? Is it just for ticket sales? Not exactly. Despite playing in a six-team division, the NL Central is arguably the worst division in baseball. While the Cincinnati Reds look to be the favorite, the Pirates went 10-5 against them last year. That leaves the St. Louis Cardinals (without Albert Pujols), the Milwaukee Brewers (minus Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun for 50 games), the Chicago Cubs (currently in the process of rebuilding), and the Houston Astros (give me a break!). The Pirates have an great opportunity to make some serious noise in an otherwise mute division. Signing a solid, veteran starter would go a long way in 2012.