The Phillies have a lot of problems. When general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. went to bed last night, he probably thought his pitching staff was the one thing he could count on in 2014. Sure, there are always injury concerns (as the bicep troubles of Cole Hamels indicate) but with Hamels, Cliff Lee, Cuban import Miguel Gonzalez, and low cost flier Roberto Hernandez
Maybe some outfield depth or viable backups for their aging infielders represent higher priorities. Maybe stripping down and rebuilding a little bit, using Cole Hamels as the future face of the franchise.
Clearly, none of us are familiar with the way RAJ thinks. Ruben Amaro Jr. doubled down for 2014, signing A.J. Burnett to a one-year contract with $16 million. Only the Phillies.
All the old stallions stop in Philadelphia on their way to the glue factory.
— scott lewis (@thescottlewis) February 12, 2014
After two straight excellent seasons in Pittsburgh, there should not be much in the way of doubt that A.J. Burnett is a legit number two starter in the big leagues. The addition of a two-seam fastball might have saved his career, driving his ground ball rate way up and keeping the ball in the park better than his days in New York. Admittedly, the shifty ways of the Pirates helped him keep runs off the board and the (secretly) vast expanses of PNC Park did its part to keep the ball in the yard.
What this means for the Phillies
In Pittsburgh, A.J. Burnett was remade as a veteran leader, overseeing the Pirates young pitching staff and extending his years of experience and knowledge to a young staff. The Phililes are the most veteran team around, so Burnett isn’t coming to the City of Brotherly Love to dispense advice. He is there to help this team win. Which, despite the overwhelming strength of their starting rotation, they probably can’t do it.
Replacing Roberto Hernandez‘s replacement level production with A.J. Burnett probably buys the Phillies and extra three wins. Three wins is good, huge even. Even though he was so much better and did a great job of striking out hitters relative to his walk totals, A.J. Burnett benefited from the defense and park factors mentioned above. Moving to Philadelphia, those factors are all but reversed.
Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia is a much cozier environment than the stadium in Pittsburgh and the Phillies defense is stationary compared to the active and forward-thinking Pirates defenders. Burnett’s new devotion to his sinker increased his ground ball rate to one of the highest levels among starters in baseball. The Pirates defense helped hold Burnett’s in-play average on grounders well below league average over the last two years. Only two teams turned ground balls into outs at a better rate than the Pirates since 2012.
The Phillies? They’re at the complete other end of the spectrum, ranking 27th on ground ball BABIP. This obviously works against Burnett’s best skill since his rebirth in the National League. To say nothing about the difference in home runs allowed, which should tick up. Probably not significantly but every dinger counts, right?
Even if the 38-year old isn’t as good for Philadelphia, he helps. But the degree to which he helps isn’t nearly enough. There is too much quality elsewhere in their division and too much invested in a very old (and overpaid) infield. If every single solitary thing goes perfectly, they might be able to hang with the Nationals and Braves while holding off the Mets. But everything does not go perfectly.
Burnett helps the Phillies get closer to 80 wins, which is nice. But they need 90 if they want to sniff the playoffs. One guy can’t do that on his own. Well, mostly. I don’t think the Phillies have the pieces to pull off a Mike Trout trade. Not until 2029, anyway.
What this means for the Pirates
Hard to say the Pirates did anything more than completely mishandle the A.J. Burnett situation. They patiently sat back and waited for him to decide his 2014 fate, only to walk away with nothing. They choose not to extend a qualifying offer, perhaps a “make good” offer to keep their leader’s options open and earning potential high. Instead, they allowed Burnett to leave having signed a deal worth just $2 million more than the amount of the QO.
There is a good chance that the Pirates weren’t comfortable with Burnett at $14MM, meaning $16MM was well beyond their means. But they now must replace 200 innings with Edinson Volquez and friends, all while hoping Francisco Liriano doesn’t give back all his gains from 2013.
But this was the case if he retired, as they feared he would. The Pirates weren’t going to spend $16 million on any pitcher, though they of all teams could use a compensation draft pick to keep their pipeline full.
Might they come to regret the way the A.J. Burnett saga played out? If the Phillies can somehow edge the Pirates for a wild card spot, you can bet they will. It is easy to question Pittsburgh’s treatment of this rare situation from the start, though they do deserve some credit for sticking with their plan, I guess.
If Burnett flops, they look brilliant for getting out while the getting is good. If he succeeds and they falter, welp. The Pirates are committed to their youth movement, however fraught with potential pot holes that road ends up.
What this means for A.J. Burnett
Money! Lots more money. After two years like he just strung together in Pittsburgh, you have to wonder if he couldn’t secure a multiyear deal. Surely such a deal was out there, were the Maryland resident willing to expand his pool for potential employers beyond dirt bike range from his home in Monkton, Md.
There is no official word on no-trade protection in Burnett’s deal (yet). For a player considering retirement with specific geographic limitations on his potential teams, a midseason deal (removing draft pick compensation) on a team with a future very much up in the air seems important. If the Phillies struggle and are out of the playoff race, they must at least consider dealing Burnett, don’t they? How might that sit with Burnett?
A risk he surely worked into his internal calculus when deciding to sign with Phillies. Maybe a move to the Angels or something for the final two months of the season is in the offing. Of all the GMs in baseball, Ruben Amaro Jr. seems like the kind of guy who would run such a move past his veteran, even without a no-trade clause.
But yeah, money. Burnett gets paid AGAIN, for the third time in his career. That’s a pretty good ability to be really good, really healthy and definitely in the right place at the right time. You can’t put a price on that, this much I know.
Update: Looks like the two sides are still hammering out the details of the deal but there will be an option for a second year included, activated either by the player or mutually. There will also be limited no-trade protection, according to Todd Zolecki of MLB.com.
Additionally, Jon Heyman and others report that Pirates top offer was $12MM for the season, less than the value of a qualifying offer and much less than the price Philadelphia was willing to pay. Pittsburgh made a valuation and stuck with it. Here’s to ‘em, I guess.