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Burnett Deal: Good News For People Who Love Bad News

However you view the Phillies' chances for 2014, you should be happy that the organization shelled out $16 million to sign A.J. Burnett.


First, a hat tip to the optimists, whether those employed by dying dead-tree media or the strictly digital kind (no link available). In suggesting the 2014 Phillies might contend, these few--these happy, nutty few--have swum against a flood tide of doubters, a winter-long surge of negativity that seems to have devolved into a top-this dynamic of who can hurl the harshest criticisms at Ruben Amaro, ownership, Comcast and pretty much everyone else affiliated with the organization other than maybe Scott Franzke, Larry Andersen and the Phanatic.

If your take twelve hours ago was that the Phils are destined to spend $160 million and win 70-odd games, my guess is the A.J. Burnett news won't materially alter your position: now you figure they'll spend an additional $16 million and maybe buy three more wins. Or you're sure Burnett will get hurt, or revert back to his late-Yankees form. But I'm here to suggest you should be at least as happy as the medicated minority who think the 3-4 wins Burnett might be worth bump the team from mid-80s maybe to high-80s hopeful. The reason has everything to do with perception, expectations and the bottom line.

Last year, the Phillies had the league's third-highest payroll and 24th-best (seventh-worst) record--quite possibly the worst return on investment in player salaries of baseball's modern era. (I called this the "Wilpon Number," mostly to annoy Mets fans, but feel free to re-dub it the Amaro Number.) They were similarly lousy by this measure in 2012. All through this winter, Amaro and other front office types reaffirmed their commitment to keeping payroll around last year's figure; with so many other teams opening the checkbook this winter as a new wave of TV revenues floods the game, the Phillies figured to drift a bit down the rankings in terms of player salary outlays. The deal for Burnett probably assures them of staying around third, behind the Yankees and Dodgers.

My guess is that one reason the team made this move is that ticket sales look to be way off last year's levels, which were themselves down from 2012, and ownership decided to spend a little more to boost excitement and attention. I kind of doubt Burnett himself will spur many people to buy a ten-game package, but the hope might be that he helps push the team into relevancy for long enough that the slide is halted, if not reversed. As investments go, it's not a bad one, particularly with that new cable deal soon to kick in.

But if you're convinced that this year's club is hopelessly flawed, the effect of the extra expenditure--and the extra attention--is to intensify the spotlight, and the pressure, on Amaro. If you've found grating his complaints about last year's bad injury luck ("who could have guessed that my 33 year-old plus sized first baseman coming off a major injury might hurt his leg?"), and have been waiting for the hints that ownership constrained him from spending this winter, you can exhale: any such statement now won't pass the laugh test. The 2014 team now looks likely to have the highest payroll in franchise history.

As of yesterday, I saw the 2014 Phillies as likely a 74-78 win team, better than last year in the field and the bullpen but not enough to really move the needle, particularly with the health risks of an age-heavy roster. (Hi, Cole!) To be honest, the scenario that scared me most was that the team would win 82 games with a slightly lower payroll, saving Amaro's job. I guess this scenario is still in play, but the stakes are higher: whatever win total Amaro needed yesterday to save his ass for 2015 went up by at least the number of wins one can realistically expect Burnett to add.

So the team is both more likely to contend--whatever you thought the chances were before--and more likely to fire the architect of their failure if they don't. How is this not a win-win?