Ever wonder what went through A.J. Burnett’s mind when he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates? In a recent interview, he gave us that answer and some other thoughts on his time with the Bucs.
When the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired A.J. Burnett back in 2012 fans hoped he just would perform well for the team, but no one would have guessed that he would have become the face of the franchise’s resurgence. A.J. Burnett brought his ability to Pittsburgh, yes, but he made just as big of an impact by coming in and leading a young group and showing them what it takes to win.
Never in a million years would anyone have guessed that Burnett would be on the Pittsburgh Pirates. This is especially reinforced when considering the contract he received from the New York Yankees, which paid him $82.5 million over five years. To this day, the Pittsburgh Pirates have yet to give out a contract of that size, however, this is what made part of the A.J. Burnett deal so good.
The Bucs traded two low-level prospects for Burnett, who was coming off the worst years of his career with the Yankees. Due to this, the Yankees decided to move on and try to rid themselves of some of the money owed. Luckily for Pittsburgh Pirates fans, the Yankees were willing to eat enough of the contract to make him fit within the Pittsburgh Pirates budget constraint. Over the course of the first two years with the team, the Bucs paid him $13 million while the Yankees picked up $20 million.
Overall, Neal Huntington’s best trade as the Pittsburgh Pirates GM was acquiring A.J. Burnett. He was and will forever be an icon to Pittsburgh Pirates fans for bringing back meaningful baseball to the city. With that being said, A.J. was nice enough to sit down with us and share some of his thoughts from his time in Pittsburgh. The interview was conducted over email with some edits for readability:
When you were traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012, what were your initial thoughts
on joining a franchise that was in the midst of one of the worst runs in sports?
"I was ready for a change I think. I went to spring training in 2012 with open arms and an open mind. I didn’t view it like that, I saw it as an opportunity to help a young team rise up and become a contender. Believe it or not, I was excited to get to my new team."
It was reported you declined a trade to the Angels, what made you decline that trade and
why was Pittsburgh more attractive to you?
"I was out on going to the West Coast that late in my career. Too far from home. Ray Searage being in Pittsburgh at the time was nice. Something in my gut was telling me that Pittsburgh was where I belonged before I got there."
Obviously, when you came to Pittsburgh you had a lot of success. A big reason for that
was Ray Searage’s two-seam approach. What made you buy into changing you pitching
style and adopting the two-seam approach?
"I’ve always had and used my two seamer in my career, but that pitch evolved in 2012. Ray was great! I can remember one of our first chats before one of my first bullpens. Ray told me to go out there and find A.J. “I got nothing for you” he said with that Ray smile. “Go out and find yourself, I’m not even gonna say a word for the first few pens. You’re A.J. Burnett and we need you to go get right so we can win.” My two seamer kinda went wherever it wanted to before 2012. Ray helped me see and find out the strength of that pitch, which was front hip to lefties and back door at the knees to righties. I think I’m known more now for that two seamer to lefties than the kid that threw 100. Haha."
You were not only a big part of the team’s rotation but also the whole clubhouse. Many
give you credit for changing the culture in the clubhouse. Could you give some details
on what the culture was like pre-2013 compared to the playoff years?
"The kids were gaining confidence quickly. Maybe they gained that from watching me, I don’t know. I just wanted to show them how I compete day in and day out. It doesn’t matter if I shove for seven, or get hammered through two, still must compete. Still must find a way to lift your head high, whether we won or lost that day. Go back to my second start for the Bucs, hell, not even two innings I don’t think, came back and ran off eight or nine straight. They needed that veteran presence. With Barajas, Barmes, and myself in 2012, they got it. Then adding Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano and Marlon Byrd in 2013 were game changers. And we all had fun in the clubhouse!"
Overall, what is your fondest memory of playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates?
"I had a lot of great games in the black and yellow. I had some amazing times in that clubhouse and on that field. I also made some friendships that will last forever, but I will never forget the way the city of Pittsburgh took me in. Struggling a bit the previous two years, they had no idea what they were getting haha. The people of Pittsburgh took me right in! The city opened up its arms for me from day one. My fondest memory of being a Pittsburgh Pirate was how that city took me in. I get goosebumps to this day thinking of all the standing o’s I received almost every start I had at home. Thank you Pittsburgh!"
I remember sitting in class at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown the day after the deal was completed. I was in my American Political Process class and my professor, who I really liked and was a very good teacher, was a big Red Sox fan. Naturally, we would talk baseball from time to time and he let me know how big of a mistake the Pittsburgh Pirates were making acquiring Burnett. I told him that he would be wrong, which it turned out to be the case. The Bucs franchise would be forever changed. Thank you, A.J.
Be sure to follow A.J. on Twitter, @wudeydo34, and of course, thanks to A.J. for taking the time to shed some light on his time in Pittsburgh.