A.J. Burnett makes puzzling decision to sign with Phillies
Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana remain unsigned, but one big-name free agent pitcher has finally found a home. According to multiple reports, A. J. Burnett has agreed to a one-year, $16 million deal with the Phillies. It’s a curious landing spot for the 37-year-old righty, who is fresh off helping the Pirates to the postseason for the first time in 21 years. This could be Burnett’s final season, but he’s starting it with a team that has little realistic hope of returning to the playoffs.
The 2013 season was Burnett’s final one under the five-year, $82.5 million deal he signed with the Yankees in December 2008 — a move that many (this scribe included) figured would be derailed by his notorious lack of durability. After reaching the 30-start plateau just twice in his career to that point, Burnett did it in all five seasons under that pact, averaging 32 starts and 195 innings. But after helping the Yankees win the 2009 World Series, his performance declined precipitously, and he was subjected to boos from fans and constant scrutiny from the media. Tagged for a cumulative 1.3 homers per nine in 2010 and ’11, he finished both seasons with ERAs above 5.00.
New York mercifully traded Burnett to Pittsburgh for two non-prospects, eating $19.5 million of the remaining $33 million of his deal. Back in the National League for the first time since 2005 — and in a pitcher-friendly ballpark to boot — Burnett thrived. Despite missing most of spring training and the first two weeks of the regular season due to a fractured orbital bone suffered during a bunting drill, he shaved his gaudy walk and homer rates and boosted his groundball rate to deliver a 3.51 ERA and 8.0 strikeouts per nine across 202 1/3 innings for the Bucs. Just as impressively, he emerged as a mentor to a young pitching staff.
Though he missed four weeks in June and July with a calf strain, Burnett replicated that role while improving his performance in 2013. He pitched to a 3.30 ERA while striking out a league-high (and career-best) 9.8 per nine in 191 innings. His 209 strikeouts were his highest total since 2008, while his 3.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio was another best for his 15-year major league career. Beyond his individual accomplishments, he reprised his role as the staff mentor, and helped the Pirates not only to their first winning season since 1992 but an NL wild card berth.
What’s been behind Burnett’s renaissance? Mainly, he adjusted his arsenal to cope with reduced velocity. Via the data at Brooks Baseball, after averaging around 94 mph with his four-seamer (which he threw 47 percent of the time) and sinker (19 percent) from 2007-11, he’s down to around 92.5 mph since, but the share of those two pitches has changed to 23 percent and 36 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, he’s throwing a few more curves as well. According to the data at FanGraphs, the package has boosted his groundball rate from 47.7 percent (2007-11) to 56.7 percent (2012 and ’13), the second-highest rate in the majors among pitchers with at least 300 innings over the latter period.
After playing such a critical role in helping Pittsburgh get over the hump, Burnett’s lone postseason start last October was a dreadful one. Facing the Cardinals in the Division Series opener, he allowed 10 of the 14 hitters he faced to reach base and wound up being charged for seven runs in two-plus innings.
Nobody wants to go out on that note, yet Burnett spent much of the winter mulling retirement before revealing in late January that he would return for one more season. The Blue Jays, Orioles, Rays and Diamondbacks were all rumored to be seriously interested in his services, but strangely the Pirates — who received the only ‘F’ in our Winter Report Cards series, mostly for their lack of activity — never seemed to be, despite Burnett’s previously stated desire to return.
That Burnett chose an East Coast team isn’t a surprise, given that he, his wife and children make their home in Maryland; his previous free agent choice of the Yankees was influenced by location as well. The surprise is that he chose to sign with the downtrodden Phillies, who went 73-89 last year, their first losing season since 2002 and their worst since 2000. Not only do they have an aging core — Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are all entering their age-35 seasons, Ryan Howard his age-34 and Marlon Byrd his age-36 — but general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and those above him seem incapable of acknowledging the glaring need to rebuild. Last year, Philadelphia received a D- in our Winter Report Card series; this year, it upped that all the way to a D+, as Amaro signed Byrd and re-signed Ruiz despite a wide array of younger options.
The strength of the Phillies is their rotation, and Burnett does bolster that. He’ll slot behind co-aces Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, though it’s worth noting that the announcement of his signing comes on the same day as a report that the former won’t be ready by Opening Day due to shoulder tendonitis. Assuming that’s just a minor setback, the rotation will be rounded out by Kyle Kendrick and either Roberto Hernandez (the former Fausto Carmona), Chad Gaudin or Cuban defector Miguel Gonzalez. If that starting five can get enough run support form a lineup that magically turns back the clock, the Phillies could be a .500ish team, but it’s difficult to see them challenging the younger and deeper Braves and Nationals for NL East supremacy. Baseball Prospectus’ preliminary PECOTA projections forecast the Phillies for a 76-86 record, while FanGraphs’ projections put them at 74-88. Even if Burnett — whose salary places him among the top 15 starters in terms of average annual value — is a three-win upgrade over, say, Hernandez, that won’t be enough to move the needle on Philadelphia’s chances.
On the other hand, such a move would have had a much greater impact for the Pirates, whom FanGraphs projects to finish 84-78 (the spread on those projections is so narrow that the top teams come in at 89 wins); even a two-win gain would improve their postseason chances exponentially. While the team can hope for full seasons from the front four of Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Wandy Rodriguez and Charlie Morton, that quartet totaled just 77 major league starts in 2013 due to injuries and the rookie Cole’s midseason arrival. Jeff Locke, the only Pirate besides Burnett to make 30 starts last year, is also on hand, as is reclamation project Edinson Volquez, who was torched for a 5.71 ERA for the second year out of the last three. It’s possible that top prospect Jameson Taillon could provide a midseason boost, as Cole did. But even given his steep price tag, not re-signing Burnett is a lost opportunity that could cost the Bucs.
What remains unknown is whether Burnett’s deal includes either a full or partial no-trade clause that would allow the Phillies to flip him at midseason if they’re not contending. Lee, Hamels, Ruiz and Howard all have limited no-trade clauses that allow them to block deals to most teams (via Cot’s Contracts, 21 seems to be the recurring number) while Utley has a full no-trade clause. The presence of a similar clause in Burnett’s deal wouldn’t preclude him from a midseason move if the Phillies are again in sell mode, but it would give him the leverage to remain with a contender on the East Coast, if he so desires.
[Update: via MLB.com's Todd Zolecki, Burnett's deal does indeed include a limited no-trade clause as well as a mutual option for 2015.]
In all, this is a head-scratching move for both player and team, one that may have been dictated more by the dollar figure and location than any hopes of winning a championship. Burnett has enjoyed a nice little rebound over the past two years and could have gone to a team with more realistic hopes of contention. Instead he’s chosen one whose hopes are reduced to a punchline.