PITTSBURGH - When Sean Burnett first got the news he'd been traded from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Washington Nationals on June 30, 2009, his mind went immediately to the short term. That might be completely normal for a reliever, whose work is measured a day and an inning at a time, or it might have had more to do with the dizzying list of tasks all of a sudden on his to-do list.
Burnett had to pack up his apartment. His wife and children were already on their way to Miami, with the Pirates scheduled to play there on the Fourth of July, but now Burnett needed to meet them there before the Nationals' noon game with the Marlins the next day.
"I got traded, and I couldn't call anybody," Burnett said. "They were all on the airplane. It was just a hectic time."
Burnett got to Florida, entered the next day's game in the seventh inning, threw six pitches and gave up a game-tying home run to Cody Ross on the seventh. The Nationals eventually lost the game 5-3.
It wasn't until a day later, when things finally slowed down, that Burnett got a chance to think about what kind of opportunity might be there for him in Washington. He'd be leaving the organization that took him in the first round of the draft, helped him get back from Tommy John surgery and developed him for nine years, but he'd be heading to a place where the chances were limitless. The Nationals had just packaged their closer, Joel Hanrahan, in the deal, and their only heir apparent, Drew Storen, was a month into his minor league career.
"The next day, I think we had an off-day back in DC. I was able to take a deep breath and relax a little bit," Burnett said. "From that off-day, you realize you have a chance to establish yourself."
He's done more than that. For the Nationals, Burnett was the second piece of a trade that started with the Nationals pursuing Nyjer Morgan. But it would have been done a month earlier if they hadn't pushed to get the left-hander, and in the end, it's good the Nationals did. Morgan is gone, having been traded to the Milwaukee Brewers this spring, and Burnett got a two-year contract extension from the Nationals this winter. He's effectively, if not officially, the team's closer.
In Pittsburgh, the same thing has happened; Hanrahan has revived his career, while Lastings Milledge - the outfielder the Pirates got from the Nationals in the deal - is long gone.
"I know (Hanrahan) a very little bit," Burnett said. "I know he was loved by these guys here; he's a great teammate and a good guy. It's kind of crazy how it worked out for us. He took advantage of his opportunity, I took advantage of my opportunity and it worked out best for both of us. And, I guess, for both organizations, too."
Burnett's chances to pitch in save situations may wane as Storen continues to develop, but so far, he's done little but succeed in those situations. He had a 2.14 ERA last year, and is 3-for-4 in save situations this year, after having saved one game before last season. And the Nationals locked him up cheaply this winter, giving him a two-year, $3.95 million deal with a mutual option for 2013 in an offseason where setup men cashed in.
For his part, the left-hander has fit in nicely in Washington. He went from only knowing Morgan to becoming something of an ambassador for all the ex-Pirates the Nationals have brought in since then. When Matt Capps signed with the team in December 2009 and Tom Gorzelanny and Adam LaRoche came to Washington before this season, Burnett was the one who offered them advice on places to live.
The trade was initiated because the Nationals needed a long-term center fielder and leadoff hitter. Two years later, they still have that need. But in Burnett, they've got a solid, affordable bullpen piece who's quietly become one of their most effective relievers. After trading Morgan this spring, general manager Mike Rizzo said he would make the trade with the Pirates again. Burnett is a big reason why he would.
"Everybody just wants a chance," Burnett said. "This organization gave me an opportunity to pitch late in games. If you're a reliever, that's the opportunity you want - to be a late-inning guy and kind of feel important late in games. ... I've tried to make the best of it. They've been first-class to me in the way they've handled everything. I couldn't have asked for anything more."