Stop the Madness! Or not.

I’m an AJ Burnett fan; I’ll be the first to admit that. I wanted the Red Sox to trade for him at the deadline. I said on my blog that the Orioles might have been in the American League East playoff race had they traded for him, even though all the numbers say that no one player could have saved the O’s from their annual July/August swoon. I even let Matt Rauseo convince me before the season that Burnett was a legitimate Cy Young candidate.

But this is too much. This is insane. JP Ricciardi is a smart guy—I know. He’s a rational human being. But apparently reason is thrown out the door when money comes into it. Toronto’s ownership has given Ricciardi about $30-35 million to play with the next two seasons. They want to see results. I know. But he has to be crazy to offer AJ Burnett this much money. I think.

Five years, $50 million? That’s the type of contract I would reserve for only the best of the best. Is Burnett that good? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. He’s had good ERAs the past couple years, but they weren’t out of this world. Burnett has great stuff—a 97 MPH fastball and a nasty curve—but he has yet to put it to good use. And time is running out to make good on the promise he had when the Marlins traded Al Leiter for him. (This was back when Leiter was good and the Marlins were blowing up a World Series Champion.)

But most worrisome is his injury history. Yeah, Burnett’s a big guy, but he has had equally-sized injury problems in his career. He’s started 30 games in a season only once, and that was this year. In fact, this year Burnett threw over 3,000 pitches for only the second time in his career, less than a year after coming back from Tommy John surgery. And his control was worse, not better as many had expected.

He seems to have tired as the year wore on, with a 5.93 ERA in September. (And yes, I know, he had his best month in August, but guess what? September comes after August, so that little factoid does nothing to disprove my inference.) This can be construed as a good thing—Burnett was coming off of Tommy John surgery, so this was expected, and his April-August performance is more indicative of Burnett’s true value—or it can be seem like a bad thing—Burnett broke down at the end of the season because the Marlins were riding his already-frail arm too hard, meaning that he has a highly-increased injury risk. I don’t know, but again, doesn’t it seem a bit, um, crazy, to risk $50 million on an “I don’t know?”

Maybe JP Ricciardi does know; I don’t presume to be in his position. But I wanted to get a little closer to his vantage point, so, using the Marcel methodology, I projected Burnett’s next five seasons, age-adjusted and regressed. I actually changed the original methodology slightly, using DIPS instead of normal ERA. This shouldn’t make a big difference, but it’s just a personal preference. Again, the results are close either way.

I should mention now (this is another way to stem the tide of angry e-mails—I’m getting good at this) that this projection is highly unstable and dependent upon a lot of things. I’d bet money that it won’t be too far off overall, but you never really know. Imagine projecting Barry Bonds’s next five seasons after 1999! Nevertheless, it’s a fun exercise and should give us a ballpark estimation of Burnett’s value.

How did I convert his projection into monetary value? Using previous research done by Dave Studeman, I set the value of an average free agent starting pitcher ay $4.5 million. This number seemed reasonable to me anyway. I then found Burnett’s Runs Saved Above Average and multiplied that by $.33 million, roughly the cost of a run saved in the free agent market.

Here we go:

Year Age IP  H   HR  BB  SO  HBP DIPS  RSAA   Value
2006 29  148 131  9  54  136   5   3.5    9     7.5
2007 30  164 145 10  60  149   5  3.52   10     7.8
2008 31  166 145 11  61  148   6  3.59    8     7.1
2009 32  162 143 10  58  149   5  3.49   10     7.8
2010 33  164 144 10  60  146   5  3.54    9     7.5

Total                                          37.7

Actually, that’s not that bad. The Blue Jays would be overspending by about $2 million/year. I can live with that, given that they have cash to burn. They could do worse. And who knows? Maybe Burnett does break out like we keep expecting him to. Maybe he stays healthy and pitches more than 160 innings a year. All in all, this doesn’t seem to be such a bad deal.

Maybe Ricciardi isn’t crazy after all. I don’t know. But I’m willing to find out.

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