Burnett addition will shift expectations for Phillies rotation

Posted: February 15, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Until Phillies doctors examine A.J. Burnett, he is The Pitcher Who Must Not Be Named. His eventual presence will transform the dynamic of this spring for a team clinging to one final shot at contention with its veteran roster. A starting rotation that was one of baseball's worst in 2013 becomes a relative strength.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. would not discuss his new pitcher, but the news permeated his clubhouse. Kyle Kendrick, regarded as an overmatched third starter but now a capable No. 4, exuberantly spoke about Burnett: "He has great stuff." Catcher Carlos Ruiz's eyes widened Thursday morning when he was informed of the pending transaction.

Ryne Sandberg was supposed to tiptoe around any inquiries, but the manager's excitement was uncontainable.

"A.J. Burnett, there are probably 30 teams out there who he could help," Sandberg said. "We'll see what happens there. I can't really comment on it, but something like that could work out very well."

The Phillies, a source said, continued to negotiate with Burnett's camp Thursday as Phillies pitchers and catchers participated in their first formal workout. The deal is expected to be for one year and $16 million, with a possible option for 2015. His addition has repercussions for the entire pitching staff.

The pressure for Miguel Gonzalez to win a spot this spring is immediately reduced with Burnett's addition. Gonzalez threw a bullpen session Thursday alongside six other pitchers, but a dozen team officials focused on their mystery Cuban pitcher. They have lowered expectations for the 27-year-old righthander because of his lack of recent competition.

"I've got more to prove to myself than anyone else," Gonzalez said through a translator. "Once I prove it to myself, everyone else will be able to see it clearly."

Gonzalez could begin the season at triple-A Lehigh Valley. Amaro said his preference is for Gonzalez to start - whether in the majors or minors. Gonzalez said he has not pitched as a reliever since 2011, but he would be open to any role. The Phillies signed him to a three-year, $12 million deal in August.

Roberto Hernandez, who signed a $4.5 million deal in December, is the favorite for the fifth spot. The Phillies could keep Jonathan Pettibone as a starter in April while Cole Hamels builds arm strength, then stash him at triple A as insurance. Ethan Martin could move to the bullpen as a swing man. That would boost depth.

"Going into the offseason, that was a priority," Sandberg said. "If something like [signing Burnett] happens, it would definitely be a step in the right direction of depth."

The addition of Burnett allows the Phillies to exercise prudence with Hamels. Amaro preached caution with regard to his $144 million lefthander, who suffered from biceps tendinitis in November and is behind the other pitchers in camp. The Phillies expect Hamels to pitch in April.

"Why would we want to push him?" Amaro said. "If we wanted to push him and tell him to get ready for opening day, we might be able to do that. But what's the point? There is no point in doing that."

Until recently, Burnett said he would pitch for Pittsburgh or retire. The Pirates offered him $12 million, according to reports, and fell well short of the Phillies' bid.

"He informed us it was family-based," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "The player made a decision to be closer to home. He loved his time here."

The Phillies, any day now, can officially tout Burnett and hope for a performance similar to the one that anchored a Pittsburgh rotation and drove the Pirates into the postseason for the first time in two decades.


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb

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