At the beginning of the 2013 season, if you would have been told that Clint Hurdle was going to hand the ball to A.J. Burnett in Game 5 of the NLDS, your reaction would have been: Excitement? Ecstatic? Elated? Bursting with joy? As a Pirate fan, it would have been hard to imagine a brighter scenario anywhere on the face of the planet!! Not only were your Buccos in the post-season, but they made it to Game 5 of the NLDS with your ace on the mound?? Nothing you could have comprehended could have been sweeter!
But, as we know, that is not quite what happened. Somewhere along the road last year, the Pirate’s best pitcher by far, became arguably the Pirate’s 3rd or 4th best pitcher. Burnett really struggled at times with his command, but his bull dog mentality that had him slow down the game, and bear down on every pitch with runners on base, kept Burnett performing at an elite level, even if he didn’t have the numbers to back it up. His attitude, his fire, his brand of baseball has been sorely missed in Pittsburgh since Doug Drabek left for Houston.
But last year, something great happened. The Pirates got more talent!! Burnett’s 92-94 mph fastball and knee buckling curve were upstaged by Garrett Cole’s 100 mph fast ball and Francisco Liriano’s devastating slider. One could even argue that Charlie Morton’s new arm-slot has given him a 96 mph sinker that is as effective (or more so) as Burnett’s curve ball.
So, as A.J. Burnett contemplates retirement, one has to be convinced that he is wrestling hard with the fact that if he does come back, he will be doing so in a diminished capacity. Clint Hurdle has proven to him that the organization believes that there are better options in big games, and as he ages, those options are only going to look better. There is no question that A.J. Burnett is the undisputed leader of the pitching staff, but will he be willing to lead from the sidelines?
It has to be a very difficult decision. One can only hope that he makes the right one, and is wearing black-and-gold next year! Hopefully his decision is not based solely on whether or not he thinks he can be on top of the Pirates staff, but whether or not he has enough left in the tank to complement a very good pitching staff. A.J. Burnett is the “heart” of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and hopefully he knows that. He would be foolish to think that there isn’t a valued place for him on the team, or that his contributions are only symbolic. Although he doesn’t top the staff anymore, he is one hell of a pitcher, and will still be the one guy that always gets my dollar when the Pirates come into town for a home stand!