A.J. Burnett‘s been real good for two years, and he was better last year than he was the year before, so there’s good reason to believe he’ll be an effective pitcher in 2014. On paper, he was one of the best pitchers available this offseason, but for the longest time he was a special case because it seemed like he’d either retire or return to the Pirates. Only more recently did Burnett express his desire to play, and his openness to playing elsewhere. Immediately he looked like an interesting short-term target for probable contenders. What’s happened instead is that the Phillies have signed him, for a year and $16 million.
The Phillies were long thought one of the finalists. It seems Burnett didn’t want to stray too far from home, and that eliminated plenty of would-be interested baseball teams. And I want to make it clear that one-year deals for good players are usually good deals, and for the Phillies, I don’t have a big problem with this roll of the dice. But Burnett probably took the biggest contract, and he wound up with a mediocre ballclub. Burnett probably doesn’t make the Phillies a playoff team, and an interesting question concerns what might happen in June or July.
I’ll admit I initially thought Burnett would be a better fit for the Orioles. The Orioles are also close to home — closer to home — and in my head, they’re fringey contenders, who could use a significant boost. But their rotation is filled with pitchers who are fine enough, and the Phillies, in the short term, might actually be closer to the playoffs. They also had a bigger need within the starting staff, behind Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.
But the Phillies aren’t that close to the playoffs. At least, not according to the math we’ve got. ZiPS doesn’t think very much of them. PECOTA doesn’t think very much of them. Steamer doesn’t think very much of them. On our Playoff Odds page, pre-Burnett, the Phillies had the 13th-highest odds in the National League, or, if you prefer, the third-lowest, beating just the Cubs and Marlins. Even with Burnett, they’re sort of around the same tier as the Brewers, Mets, and Reds, where there is a chance, but not much of one. Ruben Amaro has conducted his business as if he thinks the Phillies are pretty good, and they’re by no means a dreadful team, but they’re loaded with a lot more name value than actual value and they’ve taken few steps toward addressing the need for better talent in the future.
Burnett probably could’ve done the most good for the Pirates. An interesting other option would’ve been the Nationals, who would slot Burnett in at No. 5 and switch out Ross Detwiler. The Pirates are right there on the bubble, and Burnett would’ve been a significant rotation upgrade. He could’ve helped the Nationals get some separation from the Braves. But the Pirates, presumably, couldn’t afford $16 million, and perhaps the Nationals simply weren’t that interested. And if Burnett was open to returning to Pittsburgh, his mind was made up by the difference between the Pirates’ offer and the Phillies’ offer. For him, the extra money is more than worth the lower odds of making the playoffs.
The Phillies had a lot of rotation questions before, so now this answers one of them. The front three are set, and the back will be a competition between Roberto Hernandez, Kyle Kendrick, Miguel Gonzalez, and Jonathan Pettibone. None of them are great, but now they ought to occupy two slots instead of three, at least at the beginning. On the same day Burnett signed, reports have emerged that Cole Hamels has a bit of a shoulder thing, and though he thinks it’s minor and though the training staff isn’t worried, you worry about shoulders as long as people are talking about them. Even with Burnett, the Phillies are going to need all kinds of breaks to remain active in the hunt, and that includes health for their best players.
The Phillies got better, at very little long-term cost, and that’s a good thing. If they had this money to spend, they spent it on a good player, and their shot of making the playoffs has gone from once per some number to once per some smaller number. Perhaps, say, one out of 10 to one out of eight, or even one out of seven. There’s value in adding wins, even if your team isn’t all that good, and Burnett will help the Phillies be decent. But odds are they still won’t be decent enough, so you turn your attention to the trade possibility.
What we don’t know about yet is any contractual ability for Burnett to block trades to certain teams. His last contract allowed him to block trades to 10 teams. His previous contract allowed him to block trades to 15 teams. Those were also five-year investments, and in this case maybe the Phillies didn’t have to include any such clauses. Or maybe they did! It would work against them if Burnett received a full no-trade clause. It would also be the first full no-trade clause of his career. One of the main ways for this to work out for Philadelphia is if they could flip Burnett for youth in the middle of the season, presuming they don’t end up in a competitive position in the standings.
There could also be some other doors open, at that point. It stands to reason, during the offseason, Burnett wouldn’t want to commit to a full year far away from home. A midseason trade’s different, though, because you’re only talking a few months, and you’ve got a good chance of playing in October. The bigger point is that Burnett immediately seems like a midseason trade candidate. And he could be one of the better pitchers available, a cheaper alternative to trying to trade for Jeff Samardzija.
If the Phillies aren’t good, but if they’re able to move Burnett for a prospect or two, that’ll be a positive outcome. That would’ve essentially made for an $8 million or so investment in youth. Incidentally, there’d be a decent chance that come June or July, the Pirates would be interested in an upgrade, so it’s not impossible that Burnett could still return to Pittsburgh, just later than expected. Maybe the Orioles will be in the hunt. Maybe the Nationals will be more interested in Burnett than they have been. Several teams every year want to find a pitcher for the stretch run, and Burnett seems like he could be a capable one. The Phillies aren’t the Cubs, in that they wouldn’t want to admit they signed a guy just so they can flip him when they’re out of the race, but that’s a very possible result of this, if not a probable one. It would be the second-best outcome, behind the Phillies actually playing well.
It’s hard to go wrong with a one-year contract for a good player. Burnett probably improves the Phillies by two or three wins, and he didn’t cost them any long-term resources. It’s not like they could’ve just poured that $16 million easily into the future and there’s value in getting better today. The issue for the Phillies is that they still aren’t a good baseball team, and they’re probably going to drop out of the race. But should that happen, Burnett ought to become available on the market, and then he could fetch a good young player if his contract doesn’t block a transaction. And then that’s a new good young player in the Phillies’ system, which is what they need more of. There were better fits. But this is a fit. Just about any one-year contract for A.J. Burnett anywhere would be a fit.
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