Former Yankees pitcher A.J. Burnett at peace with Pirates

jlembo@bradenton.comFebruary 21, 2012 

BRADENTON -- A.J. Burnett hopped in his truck Saturday and began driving south.

Burnett was heading to Florida for spring training. That much he knew. He wasn’t quite sure, however, of his final destination.

Tampa? Bradenton? Somewhere else entirely?

Then he got the call Saturday afternoon -- he was heading to Bradenton to be with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Pirates and New York Yankees finalized a deal Sunday night that sent the 35-year-old Burnett to Pittsburgh in exchange for two minor leaguers. The Pirates also agreed to pay $13 million of the $33 million owed to Burnett the next two seasons.

“I was figuring it was going to happen on my drive down,” Burnett said Monday morning at Pirate City while wearing a Pirates warmup shirt and a pair of white Pirates pants with black and yellow stripes running down the side. “I’d receive a call, let me know where I needed to go. But it got done. I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a fresh start and it’s going to be fun.”

Burnett’s appearance in Bradenton on Monday closed the book on three tumultuous years with the Yankees. He won 13 games and a World Series ring during his first season in New York, but went 21-26 with a 5.20 ERA over the last two.

“Without getting too far into it, I would just say I let a few too many people tinker with me, maybe,” he said, “and when you let that happen, you start doubting yourself sometimes. ‘Am I doing right? Is this the way it’s supposed to feel?’ This and that.

“I’ve got no regrets. I got my ring there, got to play with teammates that a lot of people won’t get to play with, Hall-of-Famers, and play for a great manager and a great city. I’d take it and run. But that chapter’s closed, and it’s time to move on to the next one.”

Despite his sour finish in New York, Burnett appealed to an inexperienced Pirates staff that wore down last summer. And while his results have been mixed since he debuted with the Florida Marlins in 1999, Burnett’s ability has never been in doubt. He threw a no-hitter with Florida in 2001, and is eighth among active pitchers with 1,791 strikeouts.

“He’s experienced the very good, he’s experienced some challenging times, and that’s going to be good thing for our inexperienced guys,” said Pirates general manager Neal Huntington. “But primarily, we brought him here to win games.”

The Pirates liked what they saw from Burnett’s fastball, Huntington said, as well the sharp break to his curve and his 1-to-1 ground ball to fly ball ratio, which should play well in spacious PNC Park.

Getting Burnett away from the scrutiny of New York, as well as hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, may help as well.

“There’s tangible reasons he’s going to better, and then you add in the anecdotal reasons,” Huntington said. “Change of scenery, and a guy that’s got a lot to prove, a guy that’s motivated to go back to being the guy that he was before.”

Another reason could be his reunion with Rod Barajas, who caught Burnett’s career year with Toronto in 2008. Burnett won a personal-best 18 games that year while pacing the American League in strikeouts (231) and starts (34).

“The confidence level was off the roof. As a battery, we just had this chemistry,” said Barajas, who signed with the Pirates in November. “He believed in me, he believed in what I was doing behind the plate. And I believed in him in executing pitches.”

The two remained in contact while Burnett was in New York, with Burnett and Barajas talking about how to re-capture the magic he had during that one season as a Blue Jay.

“He’d ask me, ‘What did we used to do that made me successful?’” Barajas said. “We’ve always had that relationship even when we weren’t on the same team. For me, he’s a joy to be around. He’s funny, he has good energy and I think he’s going to mix in well here.”

Burnett appeared relax and friendly Monday morning, happy his future was set and ready to embrace a new chapter in his career.

“I put more pressure on myself than anybody else does, so I think that it was fun the first couple of years,” Burnett said of his time in New York. “Then it got to be more like, ‘Am I going to get out of this funk?’ Now, I’ve got a chance to. Open arms, accepting all this. And it’s great.”

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