Peter Gammons is reporting today that the Orioles are very interested in AJ Burnett and that the Rays have some interest in him as well. I won't pretend to know what's on Burnett's mind, but at this point it seems pretty unlikely to me that the Pirates will get into a bidding war for Burnett's services. The Pirates offer Burnett a location closer to his Maryland home than the Rays do, they offer him a better chance to contend than the Orioles do, and they offer him refuge from the AL East in general, but none of this is new information and Burnett's had a few months to mull this over now. It's never been a secret that the Orioles were going to be interested in him if he hit the open market, and while it seems safe to assume that the Pirates haven't quite met whatever Burnett's asking price is, it also seems to me like Burnett hasn't been easiest person to talk to this winter. He's on the open market because he wants to be. Whether that's because he legitimately wants to sign with the Orioles or Rays or because he thinks it's the best way to drive the Pirates' offer up remains to be seen.
In trying to write about this situation, I've found it to be a really tough one to parse. It is, in general, being portrayed as fairly black-and-white by a large portion of the fan base and the media that covers the team. The prevailing opinion is that the Pirates screwed up by not making Burnett a qualifying offer and that it'd be an inexcusable mistake to not offer him whatever it would take to get him back for a year (on the assumption that "whatever it would take" means ~$15 million for one year, which seems like a fair guess, but is a guess nonetheless at this point). I don't really disagree with any of this. It seems like the Pirates probably should've made Burnett a qualifying offer (though that's an awfully complicated thing given it's early point in the off-season and I don't really know that he would've accepted it) and could probably afford a one-year deal for him in that general price range. If you think of them as a fringe contender right now (which I do), then the most obvious way for them to improve in the immediate future is to become less reliant on Edinson Volquez, Jeff Locke/Brandon Cumpton/Stolmy Pimentel, and Wandy Rodriguez's balkly elbow. Portraying this as a slam dunk decision makes me a bit wary, though, for a number of reasons.
One is pretty straight forward: when Neal Huntington made his comments about not wanting to committ a certain amount of his payroll to one player, I thought it was relatively easy to read between the lines as the Pirates not wanting to committ that much money to AJ Burnett. Burnett's been excellent for the Pirates over the last two years, but he's also 37 years old and he's coming off of a season in which he had a relatively uneven second half (he gave up 5+ runs four times in seven starts with another four-run start mixed in between August 10th and September 11th before finishing the season strong, save his playoff outing). He'll probably be fine in 2014 and I don't see a real reason to think he won't be, but I could also understand some caution given his age.
It's also worth pointing out that if you make the statement that the Pirates need Burnett, you're basing on a couple of assumptions: one about Wandy Rodriguez's health, and another about Edinson Volquez's general ability to play baseball. It seemed to me in September that the Pirates' were relatively upbeat about Rodriguez's arthritis diagnosis; that meant no ligament damage and it presumably meant a clearer path of rehab over the winter. Obviously it's foolish to pencil him in for 200 innings this year, but I think that it's too early to write him off as a lost cause for 2014 entirely. I also understand (and generally share) the pessimism in regards to Volquez, but it also seems fair to give the Pirates an opportunity to at least work with the guy in camp. The comparisons to Jonathan Sanchez are ridiculous (Sanchez lost almost 3 mph off of his fastball from 2009 to 2012 and was legitimately one of baseball's worst pitchers the year before the Pirates signed him; Volquez's velocity was down about 1 mph last year, but as bad as he was for most of 2013, he was decent with the Padres in 2012 and not entirely awful with the Dodgers at the end of last year). I don't think there's much of a chance that he'll be a Francisco Liriano-level success, but it's certainly possible that he'll be useful.
The larger question that I have about re-signing Burnett can probably best be summarized like this: it's definitely true that signing Burnett is the best way the Pirates can spend $15 million right now, but I'm not quite as sure that that's the best use of their money over the course of the season. It seems to me like a relative nightmare scenario for the Pirates to have seven useful but untradeable starting pitchers, a huge problem elsewhere on the field, and no financial flexibility to do anything down the stretch. We know the Pirates have an immediate problem at first base, we know that they're rolling the dice in right field with a bunch of players (that Tabata/Snider/Decker will be able to bridge the gap to Polanco and that Polanco will be ready by mid-season), the Jordy Mercer/Clint Barmes duo aren't exactly a slam-dunk at short, and both Starling Marte and Neil Walker are relatively injury-prone without immediately obvious replacements. We've seen the Pirates leverage the ability to take on payroll in trades in the past; it's possible that not going over whatever their allocated amount for Burnett is will allow them to do so again during the season. Maybe in the end it will be more useful for the Pirates to spend $6 million or $10 million of that $15 million on completing a trade, rather than spending all of it on Burnett.
I'll say again that I don't know that any of these things will end up being true and that it still seems to me like the rotation is the team's biggest potential weakness (besides the obvious concerns with Rodriguez and Volquez and the various types of uncertainty regarding Taillon/Pimentel/Locke/Cumpton, counting on 90 starts from Liriano, Morton, and Cole makes me a little queasy) outside of first base at this point. That means that I think they should re-sign Burnett. If they don't, I think there would be logic in their decision not to, but it would be a final frustrating cap on an all-around frustrating off-season.
Your last few sentences perfectly sum up my nervousness around the whole Burnett issue. I also fear for first base.
I would pretty much agree with your assessment here--the Pirates have a lot of options for the rotation which are at least plausible, while the current options in right (although I suspect the Pirates may already have the date for Polanco's debut circled on the calendar) and first base suggest that a repeat of a Byrd/Morneau type of duet will be on tap for the stretch run.
The most convincing indication that we're truly past the PED era is the Lambo/Sanchez platoon at 1B. It seems like it was just a couple years ago that the free agent market was lousy with 35 year olds who could hit 25 HR with a 325 OBP for 2/$14 mil.