Are the Philadelphia Phillies better off without A.J. Burnett?


Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the World Series is completed, pitcher A.J. Burnett has five to days to alert the Phillies whether he will exercise his 2015 player option. There has been a good deal of speculation as to which way Burnett is leaning, and based on the inconsistencies of the reports, it seems like Burnett is still trying to decide.

As his decision day approaches, I have to wonder: Are the Phillies better off if Burnett does not return in 2015?

There’s no denying that Burnett had a disappointing season. Coming off two successful years with the Pirates, Burnett had problems with his control all season, and ended up leading the league in both walks and losses. He was particularly bad in the second half, recording a 5.82 ERA.

At first glance, it seems like the team would be better off without him. Burnett is a soon to be 38 year old pitcher coming off a poor season who will be paid $15 million if he returns to the team.

But after taking a look at the Phillies rotation without Burnett, the decision doesn’t look quite so easy.

I’m making the assumption that despite what Pat Gillick says about expectations for 2015, they will still attempt to field a competitive team. They might not be going all in for a playoff push, but I don’t think they’re going to surrender the season either.

The Phillies currently have only three pitchers who they can reasonably project to be in their rotation for Opening Day of 2015:  Cole Hamels, David Buchanan, and Jerome Williams. (And it’s difficult to even call Buchanan or Williams sure things at this point.)

Cliff Lee

is not a lock for the 2015 rotation. Image Credit:

Brad Mills


They’ll need at least two more men to fill out the rotation, and unfortunately, just about all of their internal candidates (Cliff Lee, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Jonathan Pettibone, Adam Morgan, Jesse Biddle) have major question marks associated with them.

The Phillies have a lot of innings to fill for 2015, and if nothing else, Burnett has proven that he is capable of pitching a lot of innings. He has averaged over 200 innings per season over the past seven years, and managed to log 213 innings in 2014 despite pitching with a hernia. Say what you will about the guy, but he’s pretty much a given to take the ball every fifth day and pitch deep into a game.

Perhaps they can fill those spots through free agency, but keep in mind that free agent pitching is rarely cheap. We live in a world where Kyle Kendrick can reasonably expect to sign a contract worth over $7 million a year. Would the Phillies be better off with two Kendrick-level pitchers rather than one Burnett?

It depends on whether or not Burnett can rebound from his poor 2014. While pitchers rarely enjoy career resurgences at age 38, there is some hope that Burnett would be better next year.

Burnett suffered from a sports hernia in 2014. While he claimed that the injury wasn’t limiting him – and at times, he claimed that it was actually helping him concentrate – it is worth wondering how true that was. Even the highest level of concentrations aren’t going to help a pitcher if there’s something wrong physically.

It’s entirely possible that given good health in 2015, Burnett would more resemble his 2013 self than his 2014 self.

On the other hand, maybe the Phillies could spend that money in free agency instead. The problem is, none of the players available in free agency seem like a great fit with the Phillies.

Max Scherzer is good, but probably not a fit with the Phillies. Image Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Their team president has lowered expectations for next season so it doesn’t seem like the right time to sign one of the marquee free agent pitchers like Max Scherzer or  Jon Lester. Those guys will likely require contracts spanning more than five years, which means they’ll probably be payroll-cloggers at the back end. (Then again, when it comes to acquiring big-name pitchers, you should never count out Ruben Amaro.)

Considering how expensive the next tier of guys will likely be (Remember, despite what you think of him, Kendrick is likely to get paid this offseason), it’s hard to see them being a better investment than Burnett.

The list of free agent hitters is even less inspiring, and I can’t see the Phillies seriously pursuing any of them.

If the Phillies are going to spend a lot of money this offseason, it appears that there’s only one player they would spend it on: Yasmani Tomas.

The Phillies are reportedly the favorites to sign the Cuban slugger, but based on recent history, he won’t come cheaply. If the bidding for Tomas gets as pricey as expected, the Phillies might need all the payroll space they can muster.

If the Phillies REALLY need to clear salary for Tomas, it seem like it would make much more sense to trade Marlon Byrd. Yes, his vesting option and partial no-trade clause make a trade more difficult. But the fact that he was claimed on waivers last August indicates that at least one team out there would like to have an reasonably-paid outfielder capable of hitting 25 home runs.

In the end, I’d say the Phillies are better off with Burnett in the rotation than without him in 2015. His salary likely won’t hinder their ability to go after a difference making player, and he should – in theory – make the team better. In addition, if he does rebound this season and the Phillies once again find themselves out of contention, he could be used as trade bait.

With that in mind, the Phillies will likely try to convince him to return, so the question becomes: Does Burnett even want to return?

We’ll have the answer to that question within the next five days.