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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

15 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links


From an inside source: Burnett's decision not to re-sign with the Pirates had everything to do with the team's decision to not give him the ball to start Game 5 of the NLDS last season. Had he gotten the start that day, win or lose, he'd be a Pirate right now.

Feb 12, 2014 15:15 PM
rating: 0

Philadelphia is not the closest city with a MLB team to Monkton. That distinction belongs to Baltimore, a mere 30 miles down 83 South to Camden Yards.

Feb 12, 2014 17:52 PM
rating: 0
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Realized that while writing, forgot to fix. Fixed now.

Feb 12, 2014 17:54 PM

Uh, Washington?

Feb 12, 2014 19:53 PM
rating: 0

Don't underestimate a fourth reason: the Pirates are just that cheap. It has nothing to do with broke. Nutting is just that cheap. He doesn't deserve what Huntington has built.

Feb 13, 2014 02:22 AM
rating: 3

Maybe next time the Pirates will be smart enough to make a qualifying offer. Probably not, but it could happen.

Feb 13, 2014 06:29 AM
rating: 1

The downside of Burnett's addition keeping the Phil's close enough to the second wild card to prevent a mid-season rebuild is not really downside. I do not want Ruben Amaro orchestrating any kind of fire sale because he has shown exactly zero skills in acquiring young talent. Cliff Lee to Seattle for zero. Hunter Pence to SF for zero. The eventual rebuild for the Phils needs to be handled by a GM with that kind of skill set.

Feb 13, 2014 08:48 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

That's a good point, but by the time a new GM is in place, the value of those assets may have expired.

Feb 13, 2014 08:52 AM

Amaro would not specify the record he needs to see on this homestand to keep the team together. When asked if 5-5 would cut it, he indicated that he’s looking at quality of play.

“It depends on how we get to 5-5, you know?” he said.

Feb 16, 2014 03:36 AM
rating: 0

I was expecting something closer to the $14m qualifying amount. Burnett has basically been a 2 win pitcher for the last 10 years. I suppose he received a premium for accepting "only" a one year deal, but does this mean that the price of a marginal win for a marginal team like the Phillies is more than $8 million?

Feb 13, 2014 09:46 AM
rating: 0

The Pirates miscalculated and the Philles will botch it. Maybe Ruben just like old guys better! None of these flat hat wearin' young whippersnappers for us! You'll fit right in here AJ. Our 'Life after Baseball' support group is vibrant!

Feb 13, 2014 09:47 AM
rating: 0

How many seasons can the Phillies give Kyle Kendrick a shot.
Halfway through the season Charlie Manuel would read Kendrick the riot act and he would improve slightly. Sandberg and Amaro should deal Kendrick for pitching and let Burnett's experience help the younger Iron Pig prospects like Jesse Bibble.

Feb 13, 2014 09:58 AM
rating: 0

There is a 4th reason. After lowballing Burnett all offseason with pay cut offers (he made $16.5 million in '13, tho the Pirates paid only $8 million of it) which he likely took as an insult after the 2 terrific years he had for them, they knew, or should have known, that he wouldn't be back if they didn't at least offer the QO. They were so intent on not paying Burnett even close to what he is worth they were willing to give up the draft pick too they would get if he had turned down the QO.
Why did they do it? The Pirates don't have a single player to which they're paying 5 figures in 2014. And they don't want to start, until they have to with McCutchen. Their idea is to restrict payroll even in the face of the revenue increases you mention so as to insure the profits keep rolling in like they did when they were losing. PNC is an asset, the fan base is energized and they've raised ticket prices. Why risk profits by spending more than they have to, particularly with a fan base willing to accept the fiction that they can only budget $70-75 million. This is mainly about keeping the lid on, or trying to, in their future negotiations with all the young talent they've accumulated.

Feb 13, 2014 10:15 AM
rating: 3

I think Huntington just plain made a mistake. When Burnett said "retire or
Pirates" they took him at his word. Hence no offer. We lose not only him but
a pick. The fans loved him here but I suppose he is like anyone else it's $ over sense.

I fully expect him to do poorly: bad park, lousy fielders, less than good team,
indifferent fans... That's a bad mix

Feb 13, 2014 13:34 PM
rating: 1

+1 on Rogero. This team is primed to peak in 2015-16. If Burnett is risky next year, he only becomes more so the following. With Polanco and Marte maturing, young arms coming up; I just think they're shooting for 2016 or bust.

Feb 13, 2014 19:47 PM
rating: 0
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