These are strange times in Major League Baseball.
The New York Yankees, who have a tradition of buying everyone and everything that dates back many decades, are starting Chris Stewart and his career OPS+ of 62 at catcher. David Phelps and his 2013 ERA+ of 82 is the team's fifth starter.
And to a large extent, this is by choice.
What became of Russell Martin, last season's regular catcher? He was deemed too expensive, and signed a two-year, $17 million contract elsewhere. A.J. Burnett, with two years remaining on a five-year, $82.5 million contract, was shipped off to a team willing to pay him.
The team that picked them both up? The team enjoying Burnett's National League-best 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings, and Martin's 147 OPS+ at catcher? The Pittsburgh Pirates, who as recently as 2010, could be found at the bottom of the 30 teams in payroll.
It's hard to know what was stranger to behold: how well a pair of pieces that could still be in New York, turning the Yankees from early contenders to juggernaut, are playing for the Pirates, or just how little even the Pirates needed them to dispatch the Mets in three of four games this weekend.
I attempted to speak to Burnett about it Friday before the game, but Burnett politely demurred.
"I have a ton of work to do," the 36-year-old hurler said, making certain to stick to his routine during what has been the finest eight-start stretch of his career. Getting Burnett to chat, particularly if a work routine was in the offing, has never been very difficult to do.
Strange times, indeed.
The Yankees dealt Burnett prior to the start of the 2012 season, back when it seemed like the team had more pitching than they had local television revenue, an endless pool of Michael Pinedas, Ivan Novas and Manny Banueloses.
But injuries have stalled the progress of those prospects, while others, such as Dellin Betances, have faltered at higher levels, and Phelps, off of a promising 2012, has struggled in 2013. Adding Burnett, as he is pitching now, to the quartet of CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes might have given the Yankees the undisputed best 1-5 rotation in baseball.
For 29 other teams it would have been strange to stash Burnett in the bullpen like the Yankees once did. But this is the team who once paid $47 million over five years to Kei Igawa, only to keep him in the minor leagues for all but two games of the last four years of that deal.
The same is true of Yankee catching and Russell Martin. Last winter, Martin was the best catcher on the market; the Yankees never made him an offer, electing to go with the trio of Stewart, Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine. Martin signed with the Pirates, and has been their best regular player, per OPS+, other than budding star Starling Marte.
But unlike the Yankees, who appeared to badly need Martin, the Pirates actually displaced a relatively young, impressive catcher in Michael McHenry, who has gone out and posted a 142 OPS+ of his own this year, after a 111 mark last season. In fact, the unfamiliar issue in Pittsburgh since roughly the Mike LaValliere/Don Slaught days has been how to fit both their catchers into the lineup, leading Martin to play some third base this season. (Third base, by the way, is another area the Yankees could use Russell Martin. They've been starting Jayson Nix there.)
Still, before you feel bad for the Yankees (not that you would), know that they're simply operating on a self-imposed budget that forced them to give up collecting everyone. Instead, you should really save your sympathy for the Mets, who can't seem to afford anyone, period. Worse yet, many of their promising young pieces not named Matt Harvey, like Ike Davis and Opening Day starter Jonathan Niese, are going backward, not forward. Even without Burnett, whose turn didn't come up this weekend, and Martin, out with a stiff neck, the Pirates had more than enough to beat the Mets.
But what do you expect from the financially-limited New York teams? They can't be expected to stockpile talent or match up on the field with the Pittsburgh Pirates, after all, who are now all the way up to 19th in the league in payroll. (Bet you never heard that statement before.)
The real key to success as it applies to the Pirates and any other team, for that matter, is a massive influx of television revenue. That means even formerly cash-strapped franchises can compete for significant free agent signings and be the recipients of salary dumps. (Only the Mets, their television revenue gone to finance ownership's massive debts, have been left behind.)
It's hard to think of a better example than the Pirates as proof that competitive balance is dramatically improved by the current state of baseball (the debacle in Miami notwithstanding). But it is hardly only the Pirates in heady new times; the Cleveland Indians, after all, are tied atop the American League Central thanks in part to signings like Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. That would be the same Indians team that, just a few years ago, traded pitchers CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee for whatever they could get, the ability to afford them well beyond their means.
Meanwhile, the Pirates walked out of New York on Sunday afternoon with three victories in four games and are now just 2.5 games out of first place in the National League Central. Burnett, set to pitch Monday, is working furiously at convincing teams this winter that he's worth a big money contract. Due to the renegotiation of national television deals through MLB, there is roughly $52 million in yearly revenue from that source coming to each team starting in 2014, so this is a good time for Burnett to be pitching like this.
Come this winter, the Yankees may still be trying to get their payroll slashed further, below that $189 million luxury tax threshold (though they've been wavering of late). The Mets' owners will be busy finding a way to pay down that massive debt against the team due in 2014, and a far larger one against SNY In 2015.
The Pirates, though, and virtually every other market in Major League Baseball, will be open for business. Strange times.