Sunday, February 16, 2014
Burnett closer to home with Phils
By Jayson Stark
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Down the spring training highway in Pirates City, Jason Grilli was already jokingly referring to A.J. Burnett on Sunday as "the ghost of A.J."
But as the Pirates embarked on their first official day of Life After A.J., their one-time ace found himself sitting in front of the cameras in his new Phillies uniform, trying to explain away a quote that his old friends in Pittsburgh are still trying to figure out.
After joining the Phillies, A.J. Burnett will pitch for his fifth big league team.
These were the words he uttered last fall: "I'll be back with the Pirates or retire."
And here, for your perusal, are the words he uttered on Sunday when it somehow came up that, in the end, he chose Column C -- and didn't either (A) head back to the Pirates, or (B) retire:
"At that point, at that time, that's where I was at," Burnett said, on the day his one-year deal with the Phillies was officially announced. "You know, it was a long year. It was a great year. It was a fun year. But when I said that, and at that time, that's where I was, with my family and with my thoughts. I did not stick to that, obviously."
Right. Obviously. What he did do, he said repeatedly Sunday, was make a life choice. A choice to play as close to his family in Maryland -- an hour-and-a-half "hop, skip and jump" from Philadelphia, he said -- as he possibly could.
(Now for you geography whizzes, yes, it's geographically correct that Washington and Baltimore are quite a bit closer to Monkton, Md., than Philadelphia. So close, in fact, that he could have eliminated both the skip and the jump. But when asked Sunday how much interest he got from the two teams that play there, Burnett replied, succinctly: "Not much at all." So there you go. Time to click out of Google Maps.)
Meanwhile, in the Pirates' camp, if you injected the members of their front office with truth serum, there's an excellent chance they'd theorize that Burnett's choice was as much about dollars as it was about hopping, skipping and jumping. But his former teammates were taking the high road Sunday, out of respect for all that Burnett did, on and off the field, in his two seasons in Pittsburgh.
"What people fail to realize," said Grilli, "is that he's got bigger fanfare and bigger teammates at his home front. We all do. And family life is very challenging in this occupation. So for him [to choose] to be close to his family, I don't blame him. No one can blame anybody for that. ... His family, they're good people. And I know his boys are going to be psyched. I know he's got two sons that idolize him. So they probably said, 'Hey, dad, we still want you to play.'"
Burnett does, in fact, have two sons, age 9 (Ashton) and 12 (Allan Jr.). He coaches them in basketball. He's a devoted dad, from all accounts. And there's nothing cooler than a player giving his kids the opportunity to truly appreciate what their father does for a living.
But no one should ignore that there was, in fact, a financial component to this decision, too -- namely, the sizable gap between the Phillies' offer (one year, $16 million, plus a mutual and/or player option that could be worth up to $14 million more) and what the Pirates were willing to pay him (believed to be in the neighborhood of one year, $12 million).
That component, however, just happened to be one that Burnett made sure to minimize Sunday.
When asked whether he was ever close to re-signing with the Pirates, he said: "It was close both ways. But you know what? I'll put it very simple. For the first time in my career, I made a decision that wasn't about A.J. Burnett. It was about my wife. It was about my kids. It was about playing somewhere where I'm at home, and I can still do what I love. And that feels good. It was a no-brainer for me."
Nevertheless, this is a complicated contract, one that reflects both Burnett's desire to pitch close to home and one that tells us he still wanted to get paid his market value, after a season in which he led the National League in strikeout ratio (with 9.8 whiffs per nine innings).
Beyond his $15 million salary for this year, sources said, there is a mutual option worth another $15 million, or a $1 million buyout. So under that scenario, he could earn $30 million over the next two seasons, plus incentives.
But even if both sides don't exercise that option, Burnett also has a player option for 2015 that would be worth between $7.5 million and $12.75 million, depending on his performance this season. And there are $1.75 million worth of what one source described as "reachable" performance bonuses in each of the two seasons.
And just as significantly, he has a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block 20 teams by naming just nine clubs he would agree to be traded to. So between his salary, the structure of the contract and that no-trade provision, he would be far more difficult to trade in July than your average veteran player on a one-year deal -- unless he wants to get traded.
Yet when asked how important that no-trade clause was, Burnett replied, with a chuckle: "It has a little bit to do with it, I guess. To be honest, though, I don't even know everything in my contract."
"It's a limited no-trade," said his new GM, Ruben Amaro Jr., from two feet away.
"OK," Burnett said with a laugh. "We'll go over the rest [later]."
Well, they'll have lots of time to go over the particulars, because, as that bright red cap in Pittsburgh clearly indicated, A.J. Burnett isn't in Pittsburgh anymore, Toto.