You know you’ve been covering the Orioles beat a long time when right-hander A.J. Burnett is 37 and a free agent again.
News out of Pittsburgh on Tuesday was that Burnett, a Monkton resident, wants to pitch again in 2014 and that he is willing to open his market and not just limit himself to the Pittsburgh Pirates, for whom he has pitched the past two seasons.
That’s good news for the Orioles, who need a veteran starter, want one on a short deal and can offer Burnett a home stadium that's a short drive down Interstate 83.
It’s also bad news. Because an open market -- if that is indeed the case -- means that other teams will be in on the Burnett sweepstakes. And the sense within the industry is that Burnett could look at teams throughout the East Coast and not just Baltimore. That could include the Philadelphia Phillies, the Washington Nationals and the New York Mets, for instance.
And, remember, the Orioles don’t have a particularly strong record when it comes to wooing Burnett.
They first took a shot at him in July 2005 when they were competing in the American League East race before the Rafael Palmeiro hammer fell and the club shattered into 1,000 pieces.
For about two weeks, the Orioles and the Florida Marlins talked about a trade, with Burnett, then 28 and a pending free agent, as the centerpiece. There were plenty of versions of that trade, but most primarily revolved around Burnett and infielder Mike Lowell, with the Orioles offering a group that included pitchers Jorge Julio, Steve Kline, outfielder Larry Bigbie and then 20-year-old pitching prospect Hayden Penn.
The trade died several deaths on the vine. Owner Peter Angelos was reluctant to give up Penn for what they feared would be a two-month rental of Burnett. Plus the Orioles were reluctant to take on Lowell’s existing salary.
The thought was that if Burnett wanted to pitch close to home, the Orioles could get him as a free agent that winter.
Well, the winter came and the Orioles made no real attempt to court Burnett, who signed a then-eye-popping five-year, $55 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Orioles weren’t ever going to offer Burnett a contract like that, but they didn’t make an offer at all. Why? Well sources said Burnett, with his tattoos and body piercings, did not project the image that the Orioles wanted in one of their marquee players. Or, as one club official said to me at the time -- and I think he was at least half-joking -- “no way we sign a guy with nipple rings.”
Well, they had another chance a few years later in 2008 when Burnett opted out of his deal with the Blue Jays and then signed another lucrative contract, getting five years and $82.5 million from the New York Yankees (who later traded him to the Pirates before the 2012 season).
Again, the Orioles didn’t even step lightly into Burnett’s free-agent pool that year. I didn’t hear the nipple-ring proclamation that time. The sense then was that Burnett was going to the Yankees, and it wasn’t worth the Orioles’ time to try to make a pitch.
So, in one sense, it’s difficult to think the Orioles will make a huge push this time around. They haven’t previously courted Burnett and they haven’t made any significant moves this offseason. Seems like a pretty easy equation to figure out.
But this time could -- really, should -- be different. The fans are restless after an exceptionally lackluster offseason. The Orioles still have several holes, but none is bigger than a quality veteran starter. And, if the Orioles indeed have $17 million or so left in their budget as Dan Duquette alluded to last week, they could throw most of that at Burnett for one year and not worry about being saddled with an albatross contract in 2015 or beyond.
There’s a flip side to this, too. Burnett has one World Series title, back in 2009 with the Yankees. He pitched again in the playoffs last year with the Pirates. If he comes back, you’d think it would be for another chance at a ring. And there are safer places to seek that than the American League East division in which he has a career 4.39 ERA in six seasons (compared to a 3.63 ERA in parts of nine seasons pitching in the National League).
I think there is a sense among some that Burnett is just itching to call nearby Camden Yards home (he is 5-2 with a 5.03 ERA there in 10 career starts) because it would mean so much more time with his wife and two preteen sons. And I’m sure that may weigh into Burnett’s decision.
But the Orioles need to do their part here. And I’m not just talking about money. If they really want this guy, they need to put on the full-court press, something they haven’t done with him in the past.
And, one last thing, I have no idea if he still has the body piercings. But I’ll check on that.