A.J. Burnett to Philadelphia: Does the Move Make Sense?
Was he going to retire? Were the Pirates going to give him an offer he couldn’t refuse? What about the Orioles? The Nationals?
It was the Phillies – A.J. Burnett signed a one-year, $16-million deal with the Phillies.
The signing couldn’t have come at a better time (which I suppose is why Philly went after him in the first place), as it was reported yesterday that starter Cole Hamels is battling shoulder tendinitis and is behind schedule as a result.
The Pirates had a chance to get Burnett with a qualifying offer of $14.1 million earlier in the offseason, but decided it wasn't worth it. It was said yesterday that Pittsburgh did offer their two-year starter a $12 million deal, but that clearly wasn’t enough compared to what the Phillies gave him. By not extending Burnett the qualifying offer, the Pirates may have lost out on a draft pick, too.
Regardless, Burnett is now a member of the Phillies, and things have changed for both them and the Buccos.
The Pirates Will Miss Him
Without Burnett, the Pirates will have to rely on a young Gerrit Cole, an unpredictable Francisco Liriano, and two pitchers with health concerns in Charlie Morton and Wandy Rodriguez. The fifth spot in the rotation now opens up for either Edinson Volquez or Jeff Locke to step in (probably Volquez), which is just another erratic piece to the rotation that took the team to the playoffs for the first time last year since 1992.
The Burnett move to Philly forces the Pirates to rely heavily on their top three guys, which is fine, but still a risk.
Stud starter Gerrit Cole showed a lot of improvement down the stretch last year, and sported a .242 wOBA in September and October. Cole is the future of the Pirates pitching staff, but the Burnett signing in Philly forces the team to rely a little more on the youngster than they would have otherwise.
In addition to Cole, the Buccos now will need more from Francisco Liriano, who saw a career resurgence last season in his first year in Pittsburgh. Franky pitched lights out at home in 2013, posting a .221 wOBA in 73.2 innings pitched. But that wOBA jumped to .319 on the road, as he allowed 30 more earned runs in just 14 more innings last season away from PNC Park.
Liriano is the wild card to this pitching staff, and could really be the difference between another playoff berth in Pittsburgh this year. Cole has the potential, and you’ll more than likely see a slight regression from Morton. But Liriano’s season can go in a lot of directions, and not having a guy like Burnett as insurance could end up hurting the Pirates.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that Pittsburgh has one of the best pitching prospects in the game in Jameson Taillon, who could be ready to step into the rotation mid-season. Risk is the theme here, which is why the Pirates will miss Burnett, but the team's rotation could still pull through. And with the money saved by not signing Burnett, the Pirates could look at free agency and upgrade at first base.
The Phillies Can Use Him, But Why Philadelphia?
The surprise isn’t necessarily the fact that Burnett chose a team close to the east coast – his family lives in Maryland – but it is a bit of a shocker that he chose Philly of all places.
The Phillies and their aging core group of players had their worst season since 2002 last year, finishing below .500 for the first time over that span. They also compiled the 26th-ranked nERD score, which was worse than the 63-win Chicago White Sox (click here to learn about nERD). It’s rather bizarre that an older starting pitcher, albeit a productive one, would ink a deal with a team that doesn’t look like they’ll be incredibly competitive this year. But sometimes money talks.
Philadelphia can certainly use Burnett, too. As I noted earlier, the move could be one that was a reaction to the fact that Cole Hamels is battling tendinitis in his shoulder, as won’t make his debut at the beginning of the season. That, and the Phillies were bottom 10 in the league in SIERA and xFIP last year.
Will he be as effective in Philly? That’s where things get interesting, I think. Burnett is a ground ball pitcher, ranking second in the entire bigs last year with a 56.5% GB rate. The Phillies, however, had no infield position with an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) that ranked higher than 16th last year, ranking 21st at first base, 22nd at short and 29th at third. Youngster Cody Asche will probably be the every day starter at third this year, too, leaving the team with even less stability.
In total, Philadelphia’s defense finished dead last in Defensive Runs Saved last year, while the Pirates were eighth. And it’s not as though Citizens Bank Park is a good place for pitchers to pitch to begin with, ranking sixth in terms of park factors, while PNC ranked 24th a season ago.
Burnett could add a couple of wins to the Phillies total this year, but he’s not going to make them into legitimate contenders – he may have worked better on a more competitive squad.