Will MacPhail and Orioles put on the shift to sign Burnett?

November 26, 2008

If this is late November, then the Orioles are still in the hunt for some exciting free agents. Time will probably tell a different story, but the star du jour who supposedly is within reach is pitcher A.J. Burnett.

Burnett is a good pitcher with the right home address. He lives in Monkton and is believed to want to play as close to home as possible. You don't need a Garmin to determine which major league team is the shortest commute, but it still might require a crystal ball to figure out whether that will work to any tangible advantage for the Orioles.

I'm guessing it will if they really are committed to signing him, but that just raises another question with no clear answer. Orioles president Andy MacPhail and agent Darek Braunecker talked Friday, and Braunecker said afterward that the Orioles remain one of roughly a half-dozen teams on the short list to sign Burnett, but that would require a dramatic shift in organizational philosophy for the Orioles.

MacPhail has never hidden his aversion to long-term contracts for free-agent pitchers. His original rebuilding plan called for a strong emphasis on developing and amassing good young arms while saving the free-agent budget for that moment a couple of key position players might complete the picture. Pitchers are fragile things, and Burnett has had his injury issues and - maybe most important - the Orioles have little margin for error at this point in their star-crossed recent history.

So, when there are unconfirmed reports that the New York Yankees are ready to offer Burnett a five-year deal worth $80 million, you have to wonder just how the Orioles might fit into this bidding war.

Remember, they have never given a free-agent pitcher more than a three-year contract, and it appears that the minimum number of years required to sign Burnett will be four. The rumored five-year proposal from the Yankees doesn't necessarily mean every other serious bidder will have to follow suit, but it seems unlikely Burnett would settle for three years (and maybe $30 million less in gross value) to be a couple of hundred miles closer to home.

Of course, nobody outside that house knows for sure, though there have been apocryphal tales aplenty of his telling Orioles players how much he would like to pitch in Baltimore. Maybe he really, really wants to play here and would make a huge financial sacrifice to do so, or maybe MacPhail watched the Orioles' young pitching staff collapse at the end of the 2008 season and lost his religion. But if I had to assign odds to either of those possibilities, they would be pretty long.

Owner Peter Angelos used to be quite doctrinaire about this kind of thing, too. There was a time when he insisted he would never spend more than $10 million per year on a player, and his obsession with thorough physical examinations is well known. He eventually cracked the salary limit - giving Albert Belle $13 million per year for five years (and didn't that go well?) and signing Miguel Tejada to a six-year, $72 million deal - but it's hard to imagine him spending even more than that on a pitcher who has thrown as many as 200 innings just three times in his eight full major league seasons.

It is not, however, hard to make an argument in favor of doing so when you consider the state of the Orioles' rotation and the fact that there are at least two teams in their division that seem willing to assume the same risk at - most likely - a higher cost. There has to come a time when the conservative MacPhail throws caution to the wind and sends a message to the waning fan base that the Orioles intend to compete, but I would be very surprised if that time were now.

The rebuilding plan still appears to be focused beyond the coming season, and a wrong guess on Burnett's durability could tie up a big chunk of the organization's free-agent budget during the seasons (2010, 2011 and 2012) the Orioles hope to be most competitive. He might turn out to be well worth the gamble, but the likelihood of his ending up here appears low for one big reason: MacPhail has never been much of a gambler.

That said, both sides have indicated a legitimate interest in exploring the possibility, so we'll just have to wait and see whether there has been some fundamental change in the way the Orioles do business during the offseason. It still looks from here as though MacPhail will wait until later in the winter to pick up a couple of medium-priced starters to buy time for more bottom-up development.

Can't argue with the logic of that, but I also can't help thinking the fans deserve a little more.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on most Saturdays and Sundays.

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