Maybe A.J. Burnett isn’t untradeable after all? According to Joel Sherman, the Yankees would probably have to pick up about $25 million in order to move him, but considering his contract represents a sunk cost, any deal would be a lifeline.
The Yankees’ incentive to trade Burnett is twofold. First and foremost, his removal from the rotation would constitute addition by subtraction. Over the last two seasons, Burnett’s poor performance has been of historic proportions, so penciling him into the rotation and expecting an improvement would be wishful thinking to say the least. What’s more, not having to deal with Burnett’s unpredictability would add stability to the entire pitching staff and remove a constant distraction from the team.
Not only has Burnett’s contract taken a high financial toll on the Yankees, but this year, it also threatens to exact a significant opportunity cost. With CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ivan Nova locks for the rotation, only one slot remains, so if Burnett is given that role, it will come at the expense of Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes. Whether the Yankees opt for the greater stability of the veteran Garcia, or the higher upside of the still developing Hughes, it seems likely that either selection would provide a greater return than Burnett (and in Hughes’ case, perhaps not only in 2012, but going forward).
In addition to clearing up the logjam in the rotation, trading Burnett could also impact the offense. Even if the Yankees are forced to pick up $13 million per season, it would still constitute a savings of $3.5 million, which, in turn, could be used to acquire another bat. With the team currently sticking to its budgetary restraints, that extra cushion would allow the Yankees to consider better candidates than Russell Branyan to fill its DH vacancy.
From the Yankees’ perspective, trading Burnett sounds great in theory, but Brian Cashman still has to find a willing partner. That task seems daunting, but there are two different approaches he can take. One option would be to swap bad contracts, thereby killing two birds with one stone. Carlos Lee, who will earn $18.5 million in the final year of his contract, seems to fit the bill, provided the Yankees sweetened the pot with about $12 million. That would make the deal a wash for the Astros, while giving the Yankees a DH worth only $2 million extra in 2012 as well as a $4 million savings in 2013.
If Lee isn’t available, another target could be Adam Dunn, who is owed $44 million over the next three years. In order to affect this trade, the Yankees would probably want the White Sox to chip in some of Dunn’s salary in 2014, but even if it’s only a token amount, it might still be an offer that’s hard to refuse. Although acquiring Dunn under any circumstance wouldn’t provide a financial benefit, the risk would be balanced by the high reward of a rebound from Dunn, whose production was consistently well above average before last year’s dismal campaign.
Aside from trading bad contracts, Cashman could also target teams that might be willing to take a chance on Burnett’s “stuff” at a discount. Recent buzz in the media suggests the Pirates might be such a team. Both Ken Rosenthal and Buster Olney recently speculated about the Yankees shipping Burnett to Pittsburgh, which could either be a coincidence or some early smoke signals. Either way, the pairing makes a lot of sense, especially Olney’s mention of a trade involving left handed 1B/OF Garrett Jones, who is set to make about $2.5 million in 2012 (interestingly, Jones and the Pirates have not been able to reach an accord despite being only $250,000 apart in their arbitration filings). If the Yankees could add Jones, who has posted rates of .275/.354/483 versus right handers during his career, and save a few million dollars, it would be the ultimate win-win.
One potential roadblock to dealing Burnett could be the lingering specter of Roy Oswalt as a free agent. After all, if Oswalt could be acquired on a discounted one-year deal, why roll the dice with Burnett for two? For some teams, that logic would be sound, but others may not have a choice, especially considering how selective Oswalt has been during the free agent process. As a result, a team like the Pirates might not even rate his consideration. What’s more, some teams may value innings as much as better performance, which would favor the healthier Burnett.
The Yankees are committed to Burnett for $33 million over the next two seasons, so any deal that alleviates some of that burden has to be taken seriously. Considering the competitiveness of the American League, even a small improvement could make the difference between the post season and an early off season, so hopefully the Yankees won’t allow a sunk cost to be their anchor. Cashman previously surprised the baseball world with his stealthy acquisition of Pineda, but if the Yankees’ GM is able to turn the team’s biggest negative into even an incremental gain, it just might be his best work yet.