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February 13, 2014

Transaction Analysis

Phillies Sign Burnett, Pirates Learn Lesson

by Ben Lindbergh and Mauricio Rubio

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Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP A.J. Burnett to a one-year, $16 million contract. [2/12]

If there was one thing we thought we knew this winter, it was where A.J. Burnett would be in 2014: in uniform for the Pirates, or at home in Monkton, MD, a town of 5,000 whose chamber of commerce owes Burnett a big debt for all the extra tourist traffic. That was the story we heard starting in late September, when he put the probability of pitching this season at 50 percent and proclaimed, “I do want to go out a Pirate.” But we should have remembered how easy it is for a mystery team to materialize, and how sometimes, that team is the Phillies. Never underestimate the fog of free agency.

Conspiracy theorists might wonder whether Burnett’s public “Pittsburgh or bust” stance was a ploy designed to avoid a qualifying offer (and the accompanying draft pick compensation cost), then cash in elsewhere. It seems more likely, though, that not extending the offer was a miscalculation on Pittsburgh’s part. Perhaps the Pirates believed that they could get Burnett for less than the $14.1 million qualifying offer amount; if so, either they misread the market or misread Burnett’s willingness to take less than he could command. As recently as late last month, John Perrotto reported that the Pirates had yet to offer Burnett as much as $10 million; I’m already forgetting the “fog of free agency” lesson from the first paragraph, but assuming that was so (and assuming that they haven’t upped their offer considerably since then), only three explanations would seem to make sense.

The first is that the Pirates didn’t think they needed his help—hard to believe, in light of looming regression and the doubts about the Pirates’ rotation that I detailed earlier today. The second is that they’re broke—equally hard to believe, in light of Bob Nutting’s hints about a payroll raise and the fact that the team is once again in line for a bottom-five payroll, hovering close to last season’s spend despite increased attendance and TV revenues. The third, which seems most likely, is that they believed they had Burnett in the bag. Lesson learned. (*Update: Perrotto offers more details about the Burnett-Pittsburgh split here. If the relationship between team and player had deteriorated as he describes, it's even more difficult to understand why the Pirates wouldn't have hedged against his departure.)

(Earlier this month, Sam Miller and I discussed whether it would ever makes sense for a team not to extend a qualifying offer to a player who’s good enough to get one. We came up with only one: a retiring legend like Mariano Rivera or Chipper Jones who’s spent his whole career with one team and completed a league-wide retirement tour. In that scenario, the odds that the player would not only decide to play the following season but choose to do so for another team are so remote that they wouldn’t justify the risk of offending a former star who even in retirement retains considerable PR value. In a case like Burnett’s, it’s better to be safe. The Yankees faced a similar situation this winter with Hiroki Kuroda, who was thought to be either Bronx- or NPB-bound, and they extended the offer anyway.)

That brings us to Ruben Amaro’s angle. Clearly, the Phillies just got themselves a great candidate for a deadline trade. Signed at a rate that seems downright reasonable relative to the AAVs bestowed upon other starters signed this winter, Burnett, barring an injury, should have no shortage of midseason suitors. Presumably, the Phillies landed Burnett for as “little” as $16 million because they’re the majors’ third-most Monkton-adjacent team*—only 100 miles away, compared to 250 for Pittsburgh. But as far as we know, there’s no no-trade clause in his contract, which suggests either that A) there is, and we just haven’t heard about it, or B) while he was reluctant to sign somewhere farther away, he’s open to the idea of spending part of the season with whatever team would give him the best chance of winning a third World Series ring. (*Update: According to Todd Zolecki, the deal includes a limited no-trade clause.)

*And to think, Amaro was just starting to wonder whether his standard pitch to free agents—“We’re only 100 miles from Monkton!”—would ever work.

If the Cubs, say, had signed Burnett, it would be easy to spin this signing as a play for prospects (a strategy that more teams might pursue now that draft spending is restricted). Amaro’s involvement makes it harder to tell. The Phillies’ GM still seems overly confident in a return to form for the Phillies’ aging core, so his outlook for the team is probably rosier than PECOTA’s forecast (76 wins, before Burnett). And we know that Amaro isn’t one to make decisions about buying or selling several months in advance—even last July, with the Phillies limping along a few games under .500, he needed a 10-game homestand to make up his mind about whether the team could contend. Plus, Amaro knows he won’t survive a rebuild, so his only hope of staying in power is for the Phillies to keep things close.

Statistically, Burnett would’ve been better off with the Pirates, where he would’ve benefited from a bigger park, better receivers, and a smarter infield defense behind him. (According to BIS, the Phillies shifted only 45 times last season, the second-fewest; the Pirates shifted 494 times, the sixth-most. Of course, the Phillies now have a new analytics manager and a new manager manager, so that could conceivably change.) But Burnett’s success in Pittsburgh wasn’t the product of a pitcher’s park, Russell Martin’s framing, or Dan Fox’s database. On his own merits, he was as good as—maybe better then—he’s ever been, and there’s no reason (other than the standard disclaimer about breakable bodies) not to expect another 190-ish innings of above-average ball.

It would take more than that to make the Phillies a favorite, even if Cole Hamelsshoulder recovers, but Burnett might take them to the brink of that nebulous region where, in a world with a second wild card, a team (and its fans) can dare to dream. Once you reach that region, you’re a bunch of not completely implausible breaks away from October. That’s a good thing. The contract is for one year, at a reasonable rate, and if the Phillies’ season goes south, it could bring back value via trade. Those are also good things. Most of the things we can say about this signing aren’t bad.

There’s only one potential pitfall: Burnett’s presence, and the few wins that he’ll bring, might propel the Phillies to the point where, despite long odds, they look enough like contenders for Amaro to talk himself into another season of not selling. And if that’s the case, what seems like a smart signing now might do some damage down the road. —Ben Lindbergh


AJ Burnett

Burnett has put together two straight solid fantasy years (393.1 IP, 3.41 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 389 K’s). The only ding was his modest win total from 2013 (10), but it came with career-high 26.1 strikeout percentage, which eased the sting. However, when a 37-year-old starting pitcher moves to an inferior team, I tend to get worried about that player’s fantasy stock. The Phillies are projected to struggle, and compared to the Pirates, they’re a massive downgrade defensively. Burnett is a fine pitcher, but his stock took a hit here. —Mauricio Rubio

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
Mauricio Rubio is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mauricio's other articles. You can contact Mauricio by clicking here

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