Phillies' pitching: Bad news, good news

ASSOCIATED PRESS A.J. Burnett considered retirement but ended up joining a team close to his offseason home in Maryland.
ASSOCIATED PRESS A.J. Burnett considered retirement but ended up joining a team close to his offseason home in Maryland.
Posted: February 14, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - In the second half of their first losing season in 11 years, Phillies starting pitchers were downright dreadful.

The non-Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee members of the woeful rotation were a combined 7-23 with a 7.59 ERA in 41 games. They allowed 29 home runs and walked 91 batters in 182 2/3 innings.

They were unwatchable for even the most ardent of Phillies fans. With an eye on 2014, they were, as a collection of starters behind Hamels and Lee, undependable.

Despite the uncertainty in the rotation - and little depth, too - Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had pinned his hopes on veteran starter Roberto Hernandez and Cuban import Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez.

Or perhaps Amaro knew he could pull a rabbit out of his hat at the last possible minute.

Yesterday, when Phillies pitchers and catchers were required to report to camp for their spring-training physicals, last year's Opening Day starter announced he would not be ready to fulfill that role this year while the general manager finalized a deal for a worthy addition to a rotation in need.

In the span of less than an hour, Cole Hamels said he was behind schedule in preparation for the regular season and Amaro swiped veteran righthander A.J. Burnett off the free-agent market.

So much for a quiet first day in Clearwater, Fla.

Although the Burnett deal isn't official - it's likely pending a physical and final touches to the contract - it would seem to a be a big score for Amaro during a winter when the embattled GM could use a lifeline.

The Burnett deal is for 1-year, meaning it's very low-risk, even for a 37-year-old pitcher. According to foxsports.com, the deal is worth $16 million for the 2014 season.

Depending on Hamels' readiness, Burnett could take the ball for the Phillies on Tuesday, April 1 in Arlington, Texas, in the second game of the season.

Will Hamels be ready by the first week of April?

Pitchers and catchers will hold their first workout of 2014 at the Carpenter Complex this morning, culminating with bullpen sessions in the afternoon. Hamels said he is probably "8 to 10 days" away from throwing a bullpen session after experiencing biceps tendinitis at the outset of his offseason conditioning program in November.

"It was cranking back up on top of the weightlifting I was doing," Hamels said. "I think it was just getting into the exercises too fast, too soon."

Hamels said he would be unlikely to take the ball on Opening Day, but he expects to join the rotation before long because he's currently not dealing with any pain or discomfort, he's simply behind in building up strength and stamina.

"You can't just go run a marathon right off the bat," Hamels said. "You have to build up to it."

Hamels said he's always major league-ready after four spring-training starts. Since he made six spring starts in 2013, it's not out of the question for him to play catch-up and join the rotation for the first week of the 2014 regular season, barring setbacks.

If Hamels is healthy and strong for the start of the season, the Burnett signing could prove to be a big victory. With Burnett in the fold, the Phillies finally have an appropriate replacement for the once-dependable and durable right arm of Roy Halladay, and with it, a formidable trio atop their rotation.

Burnett was 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA in 61 starts with Pittsburgh in the last two seasons. He had a 3.30 ERA in 30 starts in 2013.

In the last 5 years, Burnett has averaged 32 starts per season and has logged 977 1/3 innings. Only 19 major league pitchers have pitched more innings during that span.

Burnett's skill set also should help him succeed in a hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park. He led all National League starters in strikeout rate and ground-ball rate in 2013.

"He's got unbelievable talent," Hamels said of Burnett, when rumors were swirling but the news hadn't broke. "Unfortunately, I think he kept us away from another ring. What he brings to the table is great. If we're able to get him, it only helps us out . . . He would be good for us."

Burnett brings two World Series rings to Philadelphia. He won one with the Marlins in 2003 and helped beat Hamels and the Phillies while with the Yankees in 2009. Burnett led the Yankees to victory in what was arguably the most important game of the Series; he held the Phils to one run on four hits while striking out nine in seven innings of a 3-1 win in Game 2 at Yankee Stadium, which came one night after Lee threw a complete-game win at the Yanks.

Burnett is 147-132 with a 3.99 ERA in 15 big-league seasons with the Marlins, Blue Jays, Yankees and Pirates. His career strikeout rate of 8.3 (per nine innings) is superior to Lee's 7.6 rate.

Burnett has had a mixed bag of results in four different appearances in the postseason. He has gone 2-3 with a 6.37 ERA in eight postseason starts with the Yankees and Pirates.

On paper, Burnett is at worst a dependable No. 3 and an upgrade from Kyle Kendrick, the previously projected No. 3 starter.

Burnett's value, in the end, could very well be tied to Hamels' health.

Before the 2000 season, the Phillies traded for Andy Ashby, who appeared to be a very capable No. 2 starter to slot behind Curt Schilling. But then Schilling got hurt and Ashby took the ball on Opening Day en route to a dreadful season.

If Hamels is able to jump into the rotation in April, if not on Opening Day, Burnett is the righthanded complement to Hamels and Lee in the top half of the rotation, and not a Hamels' replacement.

When the signing becomes official, it will mark the second time in the last 4 years the Phils added an Arkansas-born pitcher represented by agent Darek Braunecker. Burnett shares that agent with Lee, who joined the Phillies after the agent and Phillies assistant general manager Scott Proefrock quietly orchestrated a 5-year, $120 million deal to the surprise of all of baseball.

Don't think Proefrock didn't play a role in signing Burnett; he's a neighbor of Burnett in Monkton, Md., a town 30 miles north of Baltimore.

Burnett, who mulled retirement for a good portion of the winter, reportedly wanted to pitch for a team close to that offseason home. Pittsburgh lost a grip on the pitcher when they failed to offer him a $14.1 million qualifying offer in December, which would have at least guaranteed the Pirates a draft pick if he signed elsewhere.

With Burnett, Lee and a healthy Hamels, the final two spots in the rotation likely will be manned by Kendrick and Hernandez, with Gonzalez and Jonathan Pettibone also competing this spring. The Phillies could choose to remain conservative with Gonzalez, however, since the Cuban free agent has pitched sparingly in the last 2 years.


On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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