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Would A.J. Burnett Trade Make Any Sense for Indians?

The rumor mill has been churning like crazy the past few days with reports that the New York Yankees are actively negotiating potential trades that would end A.J. Burnett‘s tenure in the Bronx.

We don’t know the identities of all the teams who are interested in acquiring the 35-year-old right-hander—the Pirates are known to be involved, but there are at least three other suitors—but the New York Post‘s Joel Sherman has an interesting theory:

The Indians trading Travis Hafner to free up payroll to acquire A.J. Burnett? Knowing this team, these proposed transactions sound like way too big of a deal for Cleveland to undertake at a time when the foundations for the 2012 roster are pretty much in place. But whether or not it’s realistic, is this idea crazy enough to work? Or is it just plain crazy?

Let’s start out simple. Assume for the sake of argument that the Indians would owe about the same amount to Burnett that they do to Hafner. (Reports have varied about how much of the $33 million left on Burnett’s contract the Yankees would eat, but it would probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of the just-under $16 million the Indians owe Hafner). Let’s also say that, rather than Sherman’s suggestion of making two deals, the Indians go with It’s Pronounced “Lajaway”‘s Stephanie Liscio’s idea of a straight-up Hafner-for-Burnett swap. Would that be worth Cleveland’s while?

In a vacuum, the deal would be a no-brainer “yes” for the Indians. It’s been a rough couple of years for Burnett: he’s gone 21-26 with a 5.20 ERA since 2010. But his strikeout and walk numbers rebounded to about his career averages last year, and unless you take his 17 percent HR/FB rate as indicative of his true talent (sure, he was hittable, but to that extent?) then his struggles were at least partially due to bad luck.

Burnett isn’t a great pitcher, but he’s a solid rebound candidate for 2012. And even if he’s not the hurler he once was he’ll still throw close to 200 respectable innings. According to fWAR he was more valuable than Hafner last year, and if you pencil Burnett in as worth two wins above replacement that would mean he’d be more valuable than Pronk has been since 2007. And that’s just one season—two years of Burnett will cost no more (and possibly less) than one year of Hafner.

But the Indians aren’t starting with a blank depth chart, and a trade like this has to be judged in the context of the rest of the roster. Cleveland already has five established MLB starters in the fold, maybe six if the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona makes it back sometime this year. Plus, David Huff, Zach McAllister, Jeanmar Gomez, and Scott Barnes are all waiting in the wings in case someone gets injured or Kevin Slowey can’t hold onto his rotation spot.

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Cleveland’s replacement level is much lower at DH. If Hafner were out of the picture, who would step in? The two most obvious candidates who spring to mind are Shelley Duncan—the poster boy for Quad-A players—and Russ Canzler, who seems to have acquired that label too. Or the Indians could move Carlos Santana or Jason Kipnis to DH, but taking away either player’s position would make him far less valuable.

Would Burnett be better than whoever the fifth-best starter in the organization is? Probably, but not by a very big margin. The difference would certainly be smaller than the drop-off between Hafner and whoever would replace him (given the fact that Pronk will inevitably miss at least 50 games, that’s why the Tribe’s refusal to consider signing Manny Ramirez is so puzzling). So Hafner is more valuable to Cleveland than Burnett would be.

In reality, a straight-up trade probably wouldn’t work, and the Indians would have to deal Hafner and then acquire Burnett separately. And that would be even worse for the Tribe.

Ken Rosenthal writes that if the Burnett-to-the-Pirates trade works out, it would involve Pittsburgh giving up “multiple minor leaguers” and taking on up to $14 million in salary. At that price Burnett wouldn’t give his new employer much surplus value, so depending on who the Yankees would demand in return Burnett will probably cost more than he’s worth.

Hafner definitely wouldn’t net much in return from another team—if he’s tradable at all. Few teams are going to want to shell out $16 million for a a 35-year-old DH who’s averaged 91 games the last four years, and NL teams are out of the question—no one would want to pay an eight-digit salary for a pinch-hitter. If the Indians did manage to find a taker for Pronk’s contract, they wouldn’t get anything of value in return.

If they were to follow Sherman’s advice, the Indians would have to create a hole at DH in exchange for nothing but partial salary relief—I can’t imagine a scenario in which another team would be willing to take on the entirety of his contract right now—and then spend whatever money they saved and deal players for a player they don’t need. The net result would be trading prospects to acquire a player who is less valuable to the team. Hard to spin that as a worthwhile proposition.

As a bounceback candidate on the trade market, Burnett could be a solid pickup for some team. But unless the Yankees were willing to eat close to the entirety of his remaining salary and lower their demands for players, it just doesn’t make sense for the Indians to pursue him.

UPDATE: Now that the Indians have agreed to sign Jon Garland, Burnett would be even less valuable. No way it’s worth losing Hafner and multiple prospects to get a guy who probably wouldn’t even make the rotation.

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Tags: A.j. Burnett New York Yankees Travis Hafner

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