Burnett's arm gone, influence remains with young Bucs
Veteran right-hander leaves mark on pitching staff after two-year stint in Pittsburgh
BRADENTON, Fla. -- One of Clint Hurdle's favorite baseball-imitates-life analogies involves teaching a child to drive or men to play the game right.
"You start off sitting next to them, watching every move," the Pirates manager would say. "But, at some point, you have to trust them, just toss them the keys and let them go."
A.J. Burnett, in one sense, tossed his keys to the younger Pittsburgh pitchers he nurtured for the past two years. That's not hyperbole; the chance, and expectation, to mentor a green staff that looked up to him fueled the revival that enabled Burnett to sign a $16 million contract at the age of 37 with Philadelphia.
The Pirates essentially said, "Thanks. And we'll take it from here." Not exactly the Jedi moving on from Yoda, but a close-enough baseball version.
"He definitely will be missed. But I think we just have to move on," said Jeff Locke, the young left-hander who grew closest to Burnett and met up with him regularly throughout the winter. "When he told me a while ago that he was going to pitch this year, I was ear-to-ear happy. I truthfully felt it would be nowhere but here; I think that's the way everybody felt."
"He seemed to want to come back here," catcher Russell Martin said. "I wish him well, hope he stays healthy -- and hope we meet him in the playoffs and beat him. But the things he taught the kids last year are not forgotten."
That's it: Burnett's arm is gone, his influence remains.
"There's a lot of truth to that," Hurdle said of the "keys" reference. "He set a great example, showed the importance of the other four days. Now he's tossed them the keys and let them be on their own."
"He did a lot here, did a lot for this team, did a lot for the guys in this room," said Jason Grilli, the 37-year-old closer who becomes the staff's new elder. "And he'll be missed. But we won last year. There is a confidence here, a residual effect. We've learned things from [Burnett] that we've adopted and passed on."
"There were a lot of things he taught me, Gerrit [Cole] and other guys," Locke said. "Things that we still carry with us: What you have to do to get things done. He was good like that, no laziness about him. He knew what he had to do every day to prepare for that fifth [day, when his turn in the rotation would come]. He and I, we did a lot of those things together. But we don't have him anymore."
Who inherits Burnett's role on the team?
"He definitely was a leader, the way he approached the game and the warrior-type attitude he had on the mound," Martin said. "But he wasn't the only leader on that  team. [Francisco] Liriano ... he has a more quiet presence, but he also took the ball every time and competed the way A.J. did."
"I'm a great fan of letting that work itself out," Hurdle said. "I don't see the need to point someone out and put any burden on them."
Do the Bucs even need someone to take those reins?
"I think our pitchers are going into this season with a lot more confidence," said the manager. "They don't need anybody to hold their hands."
"We can't hang our heads over losing one guy," Grilli said. "Whoever, it's still one guy. You've got to go with what you've got. Life and the game go on."
"I don't necessarily feel like you have to 'replace' somebody. The next guy can just do whatever he can to make his own mark," Martin said.
Because of the Burnett they had seen and heard in their clubhouse for two years, his now ex-teammates were certain that if he continued to pitch in 2014, it would be for the Pirates. Martin was a little less certain of that late on Oct. 7, in the aftermath of a Game 4 loss to St. Louis in the National League Division Series, when Burnett railed upon being informed that Cole would get the ball in Game 5.
"That was in the moment," reflected the catcher. "He was probably hurt a bit, the pride factor, wanting the ball, wanting to be the guy. It probably left a little bitter taste in his mouth. But that being the sole reason for him not wanting to come back? I doubt it."
And there is this: "He got a nice chunk of change, that's for sure," Martin pointed out.
In fact, the only free-agent pitcher this offseason to sign a deal for a higher annual value than the 37-year-old Burnett was Masahiro Tanaka, the coveted righty from Japan who will make more than $20 million per year over his seven-year deal with the Yankees.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.