The importance of AJ Burnett’s return


AJ Burnett‘s return to the Pirates is right around the corner. After being placed on the disabled list in July, the veteran in his last season is set to make his return to the team in the middle of September. Since he went down on July 31st, the Pirates have gone 20-11, including a big surge in the middle of August. Unfortunately, however, the Pirates haven’t been able to gain ground on the Cardinals in the NL Central. As winning the division is the main goal for the Pirates right now, Burnett’s return is on every fan’s mind, as every reinforcement that could help this team is invaluable.

To replace Burnett, the Pirates acquired J.A. Happ at the non-waiver trade deadline. Happ has been a fantastic under-the-radar pickup by Neal Huntington, as he’s posted a 1.57 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP since his acquisition, a dramatic improvement over the 4.64 ERA and 1.41 WHIP he posted with the Mariners this season. Happ has more than filled the shoes of Burnett, and is making a case to pitch in the postseason should the Pirates reach the division series and beyond.

Thus, he’s helped mitigate the immediate need for Burnett’s return. After all, before Burnett was placed on the DL, he had been going through a rough stretch, including a 5.84 ERA in July and an ugly 10.13 ERA post-All Star break. This performance was a far cry from his pre-All Star ERA of 2.11, which helped garner him a place on the NL All Star squad. Burnett’s return will only help this team if he returns to his pre-All Star form, or somewhere far away from his post-All Star form. His recent poor performance would make him the worst starter on the staff, behind Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke. This team wants and is hoping for the Burnett they saw early this year and in his previous two seasons in Pittsburgh.

But as I mentioned earlier, the Pirates have gone 20-11 since his absence, which includes a recent four-game skid, before which they had gone 19-7. Clearly they’ve been a good team without Burnett. So knowing all of this, just how important is Burnett’s return?

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His return is important for two big reasons. First, the Pirates need every possible option available to them in their seemingly impossible pursuit of the NL Central division title. Recently, Burnett has said that he feels better as a pitcher than he’s felt in a long time, and I’d be willing to bet that he couldn’t be worse than Jeff Locke when he returns. He’d only make a few starts before the postseason, but if he replaces Locke in the rotation, that could mean the difference in a half-game or one game in the division chase, and every single game matters down the stretch. With Ray Searage and Burnett working together, I’m sure Burnett has a better chance of returning to his pre-All Star form rather than his post-All Star form.

And secondly, if the Pirates make it to the NLDS and beyond, they’ll need a good rotation of pitchers. Pitching is greatly important in the postseason, and a “big three” could be key to getting to the World Series. Right now, the Pirates have a slumping Gerrit Cole and an average Francisco Liriano headlining that rotation, and no one can know for sure what the Pirates will do after that. Burnett can be that number three guy, though his postseason ERA of 6.37 is still concerning. If the Pirates go with a four-man rotation to start, like they did in 2013, the fourth spot will most likely be Happ. While Happ has been fantastic for the Pirates so far, some regression is due to come, considering his career numbers and just how well he’s pitched. I don’t know if the Pirates can count on Happ as their number three guy in the postseason. That’s why Burnett needs to return to being an above-average, reliable pitcher when he returns, and fill that number three spot.

The Pirate offense will continue to be able to win games, and the bullpen will continue to be dominant. AJ Burnett’s return shouldn’t be overblown, as he may only mean the difference in a half-game or one game in the division chase. But he can be invaluable in the postseason, and may be the final piece needed to catch the Cardinals in the NL Central. Yes, his return is very important to this Pirates’ team.

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