Maybe it’s because pitchers and catchers report to camp a week from tomorrow. Maybe because it’s snowy and cold. No matter the reason, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about baseball and have decided to indulge in a bit of insanity this afternoon. Why not put a crazy idea out there; not because I necessarily agree or would like to see this scenario take place, but just to get the wheels turning a little on a day where you’re probably going to (hopefully) spend much of it inside your warm house. I think it would be fun to think about potentially crazy deals every now and again, so I hope to have more of these in the future.
You may have heard that the Pittsburgh Pirates are close to a deal with the New York Yankees for A.J. Burnett. If the deal manages to go through (with the Pirates, or a different team), it sounds like the Yankees will have to eat a major chunk of salary and take less promising prospects in order to unload the underperforming and overpaid Burnett. Since I first heard about this deal, I started to wonder if the Indians have kicked the tires on this one. According to this Tweet from Joel Sherman, he speculates that the Indians and Royals may have been two additional teams interested in Burnett. The one issue would be dollars – even with the Yankees eating a large portion of Burnett’s salary, it would still put the Indians above their anticipated budget. One solution I thought of (which Sherman also mentioned) would be to unload Hafner’s salary.
It just so happens that the Yankees are looking for a DH at the moment. In order to accommodate the signing of someone like Raul Ibanez, the Yankees need to move salary…hence the talk of moving Burnett. Hafner’s left-handed bat would likely dominate in Yankee Stadium, which is quite friendly to left-handed hitters. Could both the Indians and Yankees benefit from a swapping of bloated deals? The Yankees would be rid of the inconsistent Burnett, while the Indians would be free from the oft-injured Hafner. Since Burnett’s deal has two years left, compared to Hafner’s one year plus option, the Indians get the Yankees to toss in a sizable chunk of Burnett’s 2013 salary.
The problem is – does this deal benefit the Indians? Does it really benefit anyone? The answer is that nobody could possibly know. Burnett is pretty impressive *if* he happens to be on his game. (And that’s a pretty big *if* looking at the past two seasons). Hafner’s production is pretty consistent, if you can count on him being healthy for the entire season. With Hafner, the other concern is that you lose him during interleague play. There’s absolutely no way he can play the field, so you’re essentially paying him $13 million to bat most of the time. Hafner also typically has a greater number of off-days, just in order to rest his shoulder and keep him at 100%. He hasn’t had more than 400 at-bats in a season since 2007, which is the last time the Indians made the playoffs. With Hafner in the lineup, the Indians are obviously a better team.
Burnett is already 35-years-old and his best years may be behind him at this point. While he’s had some great seasons, in the past two with the Yankees his ERA was north of 5. They pretty much gave up on him, as they probably should have. Bartolo Colon, who was almost out of baseball, had a better 2011 season than Burnett. Burnett also tends to be from the mold of Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez Heredia – has some great pitches, but it’s a complete crap-shoot whether or not he’ll pitch decent on any given day. However, the Indians took on another Bronx Bust in the form of Carl Pavano in 2009. Pavano, while not spectacular, was able to prove that he had something left. He even figures to be Minnesota’s opening day pitcher in 2012 (although that may say more about their lack of pitching options, than the talent of Pavano).
When you look at both players’ WAR, Burnett came out with 1.5 WAR at Fangraphs, 1.1 WAR at Baseball Reference – both tallies putting him slightly above replacement level for the Yankees. Hafner was 1.3 WAR at Fangraphs, 1.4 at Baseball Reference – also slightly above replacement level on both counts. When you look at past WAR, Hafner had more value during his prime than Burnett had during his prime, even though both had pretty similar value in 2011.
Final verdict – I wouldn’t do the deal (although this may be a moot point since Burnett will likely be heading to Pittsburgh). Even though I think Burnett could have a solid, bounce back year, I don’t think he represents anything better than what the Indians could patch together with a mixture of Jeanmar Gomez, Kevin Slowey and David Huff. You never like to count on Hafner being healthy all year, but even if he’s healthy for part of the year I think he still holds more value for the Indians than Burnett.