The Phillies added a much-needed left handed reliever to their Spring Training mix in signing veteran pitcher Sean Burnett to a minor league contract with an invitation to major league Spring Training. SB Nation’s Chris Cotillo was the first to report the acquisition. According to Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith, Burnett will make $1.25 million in base salary if he makes the major league team out of camp with the possibility to increase his earnings to $3 million with appearance-based incentives. He can opt out of his deal on March 26—before the start of the regular season.
The 34-year old Burnett missed most of 2014 and all of 2015 after undergoing Tommy John Surgery to repair a torn UCL. He came back last season and pitched for four different organizations—Nationals, Dodgers, Braves, and Twins—but only threw 5.2 major league innings for the Nationals in September. For what it’s worth—a.k.a. very little—he had a 3.18 ERA in those innings. He threw 47.1 innings at the triple-A level for those four organizations with a 2.28 ERA.
At 34 years old and coming off a fairly recent Tommy John surgery, it’s not surprising that Burnett’s fastball sits about two miles per hour slower than it did at the peak of his career. Given, however, that strikeouts aren’t Burnett’s path to success—17.2 percent career strikeout rate—that may not be as big an issue for him as it would be for other relievers. Since 2012, Burnett has relied on his sinker—throwing it on over 70 percent of his pitches—to generate groundball rates consistently well above 50 percent. For his career, 53.4 percent of the balls put in play against him have been grounders, which has allowed him to carry a low BABIP and high strand rate consistently over that time.
Burnett is not the most exciting addition the Phillies could have made this offseason, but, for a team that is light on left handed relief pitching—Joely Rodriguez, David Rollins, and Elniery Garcia (never pitched above High-A) are the only other lefties on the 40-man roster—they could have done a lot worse than a guy who, since 2009, has been consistently solid out of the bullpen. As a reliever, Burnett has a 3.17 ERA for his career.
I wouldn’t be shocked if Burnett were to make the Phillies out of Spring Training simply because they need someone in the bullpen to serve as a left handed specialist. I would, however, be shocked if Burnett ends up being the last left handed reliever the Phillies reach a major or minor league deal with before pitchers and catchers report in February. After all, someone is going to need to pitch those middle relief innings.