Brad Mills-US PRESSWIRE
With other options available in the bullpen, does it make sense for the Washington Nationals to give 30-year-old lefty Sean Burnett a multi-year deal? The Nats have a decision to make.
You have to have pretty thick skin to run a baseball team, when you think about it.
Consider what happened on Friday with Sean Burnett, from the perspective of Mike Rizzo. You have a "mutual option" on a 30-year-old pitcher who has thrown exactly 56 ⅔ innings in each of the past two seasons. If you figure the average MLB game is 170 minutes and lasts 8.75 innings, the average half-inning is about 9.7 minutes; Burnett has, thus, been doing about 9.2 hours of work per year. He’s done much more than that in practice, workouts, and game attendance and readiness, of course, but the time during which Burnett was working in a way that directly and measurably served the Washington Nationals Baseball Club, LLC in either of the past two years equaled roughly the amount of time the average person might spend on any average full-time workday, if you count transit time and/or a lunch break.
For that, the Nationals picked up their end of the option, deciding Burnett was worth $3.5 million to them. That’s about $380,435 per productive working hour. And then, come last Friday, Burnett says "No, thank you, I think I can do better than that for my nine hours a year." I’d be a bit irked. You need a thick skin.
We can assume Rizzo has that. What he’s missing, right now, is Burnett, the lefty who’s held fellow lefties to a .628 OPS over his career and held them to a .211/.245/.289 line in 2012. What’s a GM to do about that?
Burnett, like fellow option-decliner Adam LaRoche, would like to return to the Nats, but on a multi-year deal. The exclusivity window has passed, however, and both players are free to negotiate with any of the 30 teams. Burnett is a former first-round pick who has been excellent for two of the past three years and at 30, he’ll probably be excellent over the next two or three. But he had a giant, hard-to-explain jump in his walk and home run rates in between, in 2011, and a corresponding drop in his strikeout rate. He threw fewer strikes in 2012, per FanGraphs’ numbers, than he had in 2011, despite cutting his walk rate nearly in half; he simply got hitters to chase more pitches out of the strike zone than he ever had before. That’s the kind of thing I’d happily hope would repeat itself at $3.5 million, and that’s about what I’d expect him to be worth in 2013, averaging the various disparate possibilities. It’s not a bet to which I’d commit real money over multiple years. In most cases, if a reliever is going to get a multi-year deal -- as Burnett most certainly is -- I think a fan is better off hoping that some other team, any other team, is the one to give it to him. I don’t see anything that makes Burnett an exception to the rule.
It seems to me that ponying up for multiple years of Burnett would be an especially bad idea for the Nationals, who have at least two better options close at hand, and two options that, come to think of it, complement each other very well. One is Tom Gorzelanny, who after years as an up-and-down starter emerged in 2012 as an excellent bullpen option. Though he’s a lefty who can definitely get lefties out, his splits (.789 OPS vs. right and .663 vs. left for his career, .740/.687 for 2012) are less pronounced than Burnett’s and those of your stereotypical shutdown lefty. I don’t see this as a bad thing, though, because it means he’s not totally helpless against right-handed batters. There’s really almost never such thing as a true Left-Handed One-Out Guy; whether through necessity, managerial incompetence or both, most pitchers who are viewed as left-handed specialists nonetheless end up facing righties more than half the time, which can put the team at a huge disadvantage. Burnett had 144 plate appearances vs. right-handers and just 95 vs. left in 2012; Braves lefty Eric O’Flaherty, with a huge .759/.305 right/left split, saw very nearly twice as many righties. Gorzelanny is a great guy to have to throw an inning late in the game that features at least one tough lefty, but in a situation in which you don’t want to give the non-lefties a huge advantage. He’ll make no more than Burnett would have made had he exercised his option, and I’d expect him to perform at least as well in the role.
Option number two is Mike Gonzalez, who, while currently a free agent, is currently working on a deal with the Nationals. Gonzalez will be 35 next season and is coming off a minor-league deal and a 34-inning season; he’d certainly be considerably cheaper to pull in than Burnett. Gonzalez was once a brilliant all-around reliever, but as injuries and age have started to wear on him a bit, he appears to have turned into quite the one-trick pony, holding lefties to a .605 OPS in 2011 and .574 in 2012 while not faring nearly as well against righties. Now, there’s a high likelihood that some of that is noise and that Gonzalez’s "natural" splits aren’t really that extreme, but it’s clear that he’s become very, very difficult for a left-handed hitter to pick up. If Gonzalez can be signed to a reasonable one-year deal, Gonzalez could be the closest thing in baseball to a true LOOGY. Use Gonzalez when there’s one very tough lefty the team really wants to get out, with a righty warming in the ‘pen; if you need one pitcher to get you through a whole inning (including a tough lefty), go with Gorzelanny instead.
The Nationals lose the security of multiple years under this plan (both Gorzelanny and Gonzalez would be free agents in 2014), but the thing about relievers is that while it’s not strictly true (as it’s sometimes said) that they’re "fungible," good ones do rise up and fade away again a lot more commonly than people think they do. By the time 2014 rolls around, there’s a pretty decent chance that someone in the Nationals’ farm team, or a minor-league free agent they pick up between now and then, will emerge as a capable successor. I’d much rather trust Rizzo to figure that out in 2014 than to have the team be locked in more than a year ahead of time to paying Burnett several million dollars, not when he could lose it just as quickly as he found it.
So, as nice as Burnett was to have, there are comparable, much more affordable options right under the Nationals’ noses. I’d elevate Gorzelanny to a higher-leverage role, lock down Gonzalez for one more year, and let some other team be the one that finds out how much Burnett really has in the tank after three or four more years.