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2014 Phillies Player Preview: A.J. Burnett

Another former Blue Jay wearing #34 joins the Phillies pitching staff, albeit with more modest expectations.

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

A.J. Burnett at Fangraphs

A.J. Burnett at Baseball-Reference

2013 results: 10-11, 3.30 ERA, 191 IP, 165 hits, 67 BB, 209 K, 9.85 K/9, 3.16 BB/9, 0.52 HR/9, 2.80 FIP, 2.92 xFIP, 4.0 fWAR, 1.7 rWAR

2014 projections:

Steamer: 10-11, 3.67 ERA, 173 IP, 8.98 K/9, 3.20 BB/9, 0.70 HR/9, 2.9 WAR

Oliver: 12-10, 4.02 ERA, 199 IP, 8.05 K/9, 3.30 BB/9, 0.86 HR/9, 3.1 WAR

First, credit where it’s due: as soon as the news broke this winter that veteran starter A.J. Burnett had backed off his original plan to either re-sign with the Pirates or retire, our own joecatz knew he was coming to the Phillies. For my part, I was not so sure:

Actually, I was kind of right. When Burnett signed, he talked about how he grew up in the game playing against the rising Phillies teams of the early 2000s as a member of the Marlins, and many (too many, some would say...) of those guys are still here.

In baseball terms, there’s no rational reason not to like this acquisition. Burnett’s expensive, for sure, and his late addition on a two-year deal pushed the team to a record high payroll (which itself has some upside). But the commitment is short-term, and his performance with the Pirates over the last two seasons gives no reason to worry that he’s on the same decline path as so many of the Phillies’ older players. Fangraphs found Burnett worth four wins above replacement in 2013, after a 3 WAR season in 2012. (Baseball-Reference is a bit less positive regarding his Pittsburgh tenure, awarding Burnett 2.2 WAR for 2012 and just 1.7 last year.)

Of course, when Burnett went to Pittsburgh following the 2011 season, the Yankees were so pleased to get rid of him that they covered most of the remaining $33 million he was owed and accepted two non-prospects in return. At that point, Burnett was a power pitcher in seeming steep decline as he entered his mid-30s.

Constructors of narrative credited relief from the New York City media spotlight for his revival, but a better explanation might be a change in approach. Burnett increasingly relied on his curveball during his two seasons with the Pirates, and saw his highest ground-ball rates in a decade. He was still more than capable of getting the punchout when he needed it, though: Burnett averaged 9.85 strikeouts per nine innings last season, a career high.

Will he keep it up? The veteran righty was somewhat fortunate last season on his home run rate, with just 9.1 percent of his flyball hits leaving the park. Otherwise, though, there wasn’t much luck in his results: batters hit .305 on balls in play, higher than his career average. One concern might be the downgrade from the very strong infield defense Burnett had behind him in Pittsburgh to his aging contemporaries on the Phils. Perhaps manager Ryne Sandberg will support Burnett’s groundball tendencies by starting some of his younger and nimbler reserves when his top righty takes the hill.

Needless to say, the best-case scenario for Burnett and the organization is that he continues his late-career surge and serves as a top-shelf #3 starter for a contending Phillies team. If Burnett holds up his end but the team otherwise falters, he might be the club’s most attractive trade chip as summer approaches. Pretty much the only way he won’t be pitching meaningful games down the stretch will be if he’s injured or ineffective. For a team at the crossroads like the Phillies, it would be tough to ask for more.