Let's start with a confession: everybody liked the A.J. Burnett deal when it was announced late in the offseason. The Phillies desperately needed a third reliable starting pitcher to complement Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, and the veteran righty was coming off two very solid seasons for the Pirates. The deal was short-term as well--one year with a complicated player option--and the dollars seemed well worth it for a guy you probably could pencil in for close to 200 innings of sub-4 ERA ball. Best of all, if the team wasn't in the race come summer, that track record and contract probably would render Burnett movable in trade.
Of course, things didn't quite work out that way. Burnett's been durable--his 27 starts thus far lead the majors--but so do his 14 losses and 72 walks issued. He's looked much more like the guy from his awful last two years with the Yankees than the near-ace from his time in Pittsburgh. And after his latest losing effort last night, even with the decision for next year in his hands, it sounds like Burnett is close to deciding he's had enough.
With his 27th start of the season, Burnett passed a plateau that took his contract from $8.5 million to $10 million if he decides to pitch next season.
The value of that contract will swell to $12.75 when Burnett reaches 32 starts. He is on pace for 34.
The ball is completely in Burnett’s court -- or should we say wallet? -- because his deal is a player option. If the 37-year-old right-hander comes back for a 17th season, he gets the money. If he packs his baseball memories in a duffel bag and takes it to the house, he doesn’t get the money.
So, is Burnett going to pitch next season?
"I have no idea," the pitcher said after taking the loss Tuesday night. "Probably not. But we’ll see."
Burnett's 2014 has been a tale of two seasons. He was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia in mid-April but pitched through it, and had a decent 3.83 ERA in the first half of the season. Since the All-Star break, things have fallen apart. In his last seven games Burnett has a 6.41 ERA -- and that includes his brilliant July 23 start where he pitched eight scoreless innings.
That Burnett and Marlon Byrd--the team's other high-dollar veteran addition last winter--both remained Phillies through the trade deadline despite the team's hopeless competitive position probably represents the fecal icing on the failure cake of the 2014 season. It's also the latest confirmation that the front office either has no plan, or no ability to execute that plan. (Don't fret, though: team president David Montgomery has just come forward promising that GM Ruben Amaro is "not on the hot seat." I hope David and Ruben enjoy having CBP to themselves next summer.)
I'd say there have been three signatures to Amaro's tenure. The first, particularly in his first few years--when the team's revenues were rising and he had a deep stock of prospect inventory--was that he almost always got the guys he wanted. The second, which only became clear from 2012 on, has been his near total failure to find worthwhile players to round out the roster. (The Phillies have had by far the worst bench in baseball this year. Again.) And the the third has been the bizarre, often unnecessarily player-friendly contract provisions, particularly option years and no-trade clauses, he's tacked onto his contracts.
Byrd's limited NTC probably kept him in town this summer, and Burnett's escalating 2015 cost looked to be damaging as well. But if he heads home instead of pitching through pain for a 90-plus loss team next year, the Phillies save probably $12m on a pitcher who, by and large, hasn't really impressed. Hopefully they won't put it toward "cost certainty" by extending Kyle Kendrick.