Pirates held hostage, Day No. 68

Yes, this post’s headline is a reference to A.J. Burnett. Him sitting on the retirement fence has absolutely tied Neal Huntington’s hands — the GM’s denials to the contrary.

Look, it’s pretty simple: While keeping a light on for Burnett, Huntington has not been able to compete for the slew of mid-rotation free agents who have signed modest contracts elsewhere. He couldn’t, for instance, spend the $8-$10 million under Burnett’s mattress on Scott Feldman or Jason Vargas.

The Pirates, as Huntington often says, are “giving A.J. all the space he needs to make a big decision for him and his family.” Something else the Bucs have given A.J.: A deadline; but it isn’t believed to be too pressing, likely mid-January.

Of course, the personable righty could blow it all up by signing, as has been rumored, with the Orioles. The attraction there is Camden Yards’ location within a half-hour of Burnett’s Monkton, Maryland home — family-time being such a huge factor in the decision he is facing.

Would A.J. really return to the AL East, the baseball jungle from which he made his escape with the Bucs? As a Yankee in 2010-11, Burnett was 6-13 with a 6.00 ERA in that division; in 2012-13 with the Pirates, he had a 3.32 ERA and 14 wins within the NL Central.

But there is also this: If one of the things that keeps Burnett on the mound is his desire for a better career coda, what better place to make a good last impression than the AL East?

Clint Hurdle’s decision to take away his Division Series Game 5 ball, contrary to the perception the snub might alienate him from the Bucs, actually gives him more motivation to return and fix the image.

In Burnett’s mind, nothing may need more fixing than the perception he was chased off by the too-rough AL East. Bet he’d like to set that straight.

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