How much is Burnett worth to Nats?

How much is Burnett worth to Nats?
November 2, 2012, 8:30 am
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Plenty of attention -- and rightfully so -- has been given to the Nationals' ongoing attempt to re-sign Adam LaRoche. And a good deal of time has been spent debating the Nationals' need for a new No. 5 starter with Edwin Jackson unlikely to be in the picture next season.

There's another brand-new free agent, though, who deserves to be mentioned right behind those two, because he has played a huge role on this ballclub for more than three seasons and would continue to play a significant role in 2013 and beyond if he's re-signed.

Sean Burnett may not have appeared in as many headlines during the Nationals' 98-win season but he was no minor player on this team.

Burnett, like LaRoche, declined his side of a mutual option on a 2013 contract with the Nats, this one worth $3.5 million. The decision wasn't unexpected; Burnett had made it clear all along he wanted to become a free agent and attempt to secure a multi-year deal. But it does add another important item to general manager Mike Rizzo's growing offseason to-do list.

Like LaRoche, Burnett has expressed a desire to stay in Washington. He's performed very well here over the last 3 1/2 seasons, with a combined 2.81 ERA and 1.210 WHIP over 245 relief appearances.

And though he struggled somewhat during the season half of this season, that was almost certainly a direct result of a bone spur in his elbow that was removed in a minor surgical procedure after the Nationals were eliminated from the playoffs.

There's no reason to believe Burnett, who turned 30 in September, can't continue to be a highly effective reliever. The question is how much he's likely to command on the open market, and how much the Nationals are willing to spend to keep him.

By turning down a guaranteed $3.5 million salary in 2013, Burnett is banking on his ability to secure a long-term contract. He'll almost certainly seek a three-year deal, one that could total as much as $15 million.

Are the Nationals going to be willing to make that kind of commitment to a reliever, one who isn't going to be used as a closer unless there's a string of injuries to others?

The conventional wisdom around baseball circles is that long-term contracts for relievers are rarely wise. The up-and-down nature of the job produces few sure things, and there have been far more regrettable contracts given to setup men and left-handed specialists over the year than laudable ones.

For the Nationals, though, this isn't merely a decision about Burnett's worth or likelihood of continued success. It's also about what other left-handed relief options they have. And they don't have many.

Veteran Michael Gonzalez also is a free agent and may not return next season. Tom Gorzelanny remains arbitration-eligible and could be brought back for roughly $3 million to $3.5 million, but his value is as a long reliever, not someone who enters to record one or two big outs late in games.

The organizational pipeline is short on left-handed relievers who are big-league ready, so the Nationals would probably have to explore the free agency route if they don't retain Burnett.

And a quick perusal of the free agent market suggests Burnett is one of only a handful of quality available left-handed relievers. The others: Jeremy Affeldt (who made a real name for himself over the last month with the World Series champion Giants), J.P. Howell (who has had an up-and-down career with the Rays) and Randy Choate (a true "LOOGY" who only faces one batter per game).

Burnett might well be the best of the bunch, certainly no worse than No. 2 behind Affeldt.

Point is, the Nationals really do need Burnett, but so will several other teams in the market for a lefty (including the Cardinals, Dodgers and possibly Giants if they don't re-sign Affeldt).

The Nationals have until tomorrow morning to exclusively negotiate with Burnett. You've got to assume he'll want the opportunity to talk to other clubs, if for no other reason than to drive the price up, even if he ultimately prefers to return to D.C.

All of this creates a bit of a dilemma for Rizzo and the Nationals. They obviously want and need Burnett in 2013. But do they want and need him so much they're willing to fork over some serious coin over several future seasons for a position that doesn't normally command that kind of commitment?