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A.J. Burnett and Phillies starters a big disappointment

Injuries and wildness have made what was supposed to be a team strength a big problem.

Jeff Gross

The Phillies came into the 2014 season relying on their starting pitching to be a strength.

They knew their offense might not gel and that their bullpen was full of young arms and question marks. But the rotation, that's where so much of the money went, and it was littered with veterans who, if all went well, was supposed to keep the team afloat.

All has not gone well.

Cliff Lee hit the disabled list in May, returned for three starts, then blew out his elbow again. We won't see him until 2015, and who knows what we'll see when we do. Cole Hamels has been the one bright, shining light, one of the five best pitchers in the National League this season. Of course, he could be traded in the off-season, so it feels like he's on borrowed time, too.

A.J. Burnett, Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez were supposed to give the Phillies stability in the middle and back of the rotation. But their seasons were largely pretty ugly. Here are the numbers. You might want to cover your eyes and peek over your hands to view them.

Cole Hamels 6 6 8.98 2.68 47.30% 2.37 2.87 3.19 1.11 3.1
Cliff Lee 4 5 7.97 1.33 48.40% 3.65 2.95 3.02 1.38 1.7
A.J. Burnett 6 13 7.49 3.97 50.30% 4.35 4.08 4.00 1.41 0.9
David Buchanan 6 6 6.15 2.26 48.20% 4.40 4.35 3.95 1.26 0.3
Kyle Kendrick 5 11 5.42 2.53 44.60% 4.88 4.58 4.39 1.37 0.2
Jerome Williams 0 0 5.06 1.69 52.90% 3.38 5.00 3.27 1.13 0
Roberto Hernandez 6 8 5.45 4.08 51.90% 3.93 4.66 4.61 1.34 0
Jonathan Pettibone 0 1 6.00 3.00 48.60% 9.00 5.68 3.77 2.22 -0.1
Sean O'Sullivan 0 1 5.4 1.54 36.80% 6.94 5.78 4.16 1.46 -0.1

And here is your friendly reminder that the Phillies are spending nearly $72 million on their starting rotation this year, or 40.5% of their $177 million payroll (according to Cot's Contracts).

For that $72 million, the Phils' starters have put up a 4.03 ERA and 4.00 FIP, both 4th worst in the National League. They have walked 7.6% of all batters they've faced, 6th worst in the National League, their 17.9% strikeout rate is 3rd worst in the NL, and their K/BB rate is 2nd-worst.

The only thing they've done somewhat well is get groundballs, with a 48.2% ground-ball rate, 2nd in the National League.

Sure, the offense has been problematic and the bullpen has been up-and-down this year. But it's the starters not named Cole Hamels that have really sunk the Phils.

Last night's 4-3 loss to the Angels in Anaheim was a continuation of the frustrating struggles that the Phils' $11.25 million free agent signing this off-season, A.J. Burnett, has dealt with this year. He was cruising along through five innings, having given up just one run and two hits, before giving up three runs in the sixth. In all, he allowed five hits, four runs, four walks and one hit batter in six innings of work last night, falling to 6-13 on the season.

One thing Burnett does lead the league in is starts, with 26. Unfortunately, that may not be good news for the Phils, as a player option that would put the Phils on the hook for $10 million next season will kick in when he makes his next start. And if he makes 32 starts, which he's on pace to do, that player option will balloon to $12.75 million.

When general manager Ruben Amaro put these escalators in Burnett's deal, he did so thinking that if Burnett made 32 starts, it probably meant he was pitching well. He failed to consider the possibility that Burnett could make 32 crappy starts.

Burnett also leads the National League in walks, with 72. That's already more than he had all of last year with Pittsburgh, with 67, and 10 more walks than he had with the Pirates in 31 starts in 2012. In fact, this season has been a far cry from the solid seasons he had with Pittsburgh in 2011 and '12.

2012 202.1 180 62 3.51 1.24 56.9
2013 191.0 209 67 3.30 1.21 56.5
2014 163.1 136 72 4.35 1.41 50.3's Todd Zolecki noted...

Burnett went 2-1 with a 2.06 ERA through seven starts through May 3, but 4-8 with a 4.63 ERA in his next 15 starts through July 23. Burnett threw eight scoreless innings July 23 against the Giants at Citizens Bank Park, but the 37-year-old also threw 131 pitches wrapped around a 59-minute rain delay.

That was the second-highest pitch count for Burnett in his career. He threw a career-high 132 as a 25-year-old in 2002.

He is 0-4 with an 8.20 ERA in four starts since.

Coincidence? Probably not, considering Burnett wasn't going all that well before he had that 131-pitch outing. But it still probably wasn't smart to have a 37-year-old throw the second-most pitches ever in the history of his life, either.

For his part, Burnett knows you're frustrated, because he is too.

"I'm pretty sure they didn't bring me over here to be like this all year, inconsistent," he said.  "Yeah, I'm very discouraged. I'm not going to lie. I'm not going to be happy. Man, I've got to bite my tongue. I'm a positive person, so the sun is going to come up. I'm going to figure out a way to battle and grind. That's all I can say."

It's important to note Burnett has been pitching through a hernia all season, which, along with his age, is likely the reason his strikeouts are down and his control is off. He's lost a full mile-per-hour off his fastball from last year, down from 92.4 mph last year to 91.5 this year, according to Fangraphs. The two are probably related.

The Phillies sure hope Burnett can turn things around before the calendar flips to September so they can trade him before the waiver deadline expires on August 31. But that may be more wishful hoping than anything else, given the player option escalators and Burnett's refusal to guarantee that he will retire at the end of this season.

The Phils signed A.J. late in the off-season because they hoped he would help solidify a rotation that sorely needed a bridge from the two aces to the #4 and #5 guys.

Unfortunately, like so many of the Phils' optimistic hopes, that one failed to materialize, too.