A.J. Burnett is a well-needed addition to Phillies' starting rotation

Posted: February 18, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Any time the money reaches these kinds of proportions, it is easy to sit back and scoff, and the Phillies can sometimes make it easy for those who wish to do so. But the tone of Ryne Sandberg's voice told the story yesterday.

The Phillies needed A.J. Burnett.

"He's a belated Christmas and Valentine's Day gift that I've been waiting for," the manager said.

These are the names of some of the No. 3 starters that Burnett could find himself matching up against in the National League this season:

* Julio Teheran, Braves: 3.20 ERA, 185 2/3 innings, 8.2 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 in 2013 at the age of 22;

* Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals: 3.25 ERA, 213 1/3 innings, 6.8 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 27 years old;

* Zack Wheeler, Mets: 3.42 ERA, 100 innings, 7.6 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, 23 years old;

* Homer Bailey, Reds: 3.49 ERA, 209 innings, 8.6 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 27 years old;

* Michael Wacha, Cardinals: 2.78 ERA, 64 2/3 innings, 9.0 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 21 years old;

* Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dodgers: 3.00 ERA, 192 innings, 7.2 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 26 years old.

Last year, the Phillies faced Teheran, Zimmermann, Wheeler, Bailey and Ryu a total of 12 times. In those starts, the group combined to post a 2.76 ERA. The Phillies might have been ahead of the pack back in 2010 when they supplemented Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels by trading for Roy Oswalt and, after the season, signing Cliff Lee. Now, though, a No. 3 starter with No. 1 stuff is getting to be a prerequisite for serious World Series contention.

Two years ago, the Nationals added Gio Gonzalez to Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg.

Teheran had a breakout season for the Braves in 2013 and is part of perhaps the deepest rotation in the majors, one that features Kris Medlen and Mike Minor in front of him and Brandon Beachy, Alex Wood, David Hale and Gavin Floyd behind him.

Ryu slots behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, while Bailey sits behind Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos and in front of Mike Leake and 2013 revelation Tony Cingrani.

One can argue Wheeler slots somewhere other than third for the Mets, who also feature Bartolo Colon, Jon Niese and Dillon Gee. But with veterans like Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, Wandy Rodriguez and Kyle Lohse in the middle of rotations in San Francisco, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, the Phillies were well aware of the precarious position they would hold if they entered a season counting on either Kyle Kendrick or Miguel Gonzalez to pitch them to victory in a majority of the matchups they would face in the No. 3 spot in their rotation.

In Burnett, who averaged 197 innings and a 3.41 ERA with 8.9 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 in 2012 and 2013 with the Pirates, the Phillies feel like they have a pitcher who can fill the gaping void that would have existed otherwise.

"Beautiful," Sandberg said of the moment when he first spotted Burnett in a Phillies uniform at Bright House Field yesterday.

There is risk, of course. Burnett is 37 years old. He arrived at spring training 4 days after its official start because he spent much of the offseason contemplating retirement. Not until a couple of weeks ago did he begin to look like a realistic option for the Phillies. Agent Darek Brauneker did a nice job of negotiating a contract for a guy who said his options were limited to teams located close to his home in the Baltimore area.

The Phillies will pay Burnett at least $16 million this season, boosting their payroll to a club record (projected to be in the neighborhood of $183-$185 million, including about $10 million for player benefits). If Burnett decides to pitch again next season, he will be guaranteed at least $7.5 million to do so. Burnett is only 2 years removed from back-to-back disappointing seasons as a member of the Yankees, who assumed much of the cost of jettisoning him to the Pirates.

But the Phillies were pot committed. They could not enter a season with three No. 5 starters in their rotation and expect to compete.

None of this means that the Phillies are suddenly closing in on the Braves or Nationals in the National League East. Nor does it mean that they will have much in the way of margin for error in their quest for a berth in the postseason. What it means is that they have a chance.

"With guys healthy, I think this team can put up against anybody," Burnett said.

Which, of course, is no small condition. The Phillies still need to score enough runs to get Hamels, Lee and Burnett the breathing room they will need to win at a 60 percent clip, and enough to enable Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez/Miguel Gonzalez to win at a rate of every-other-start. They are the oldest team in the National League, with a lineup and pitching staff full of players who are at an age where their performance could disappear and never come back (see Halladay, Roy).

At the very least, the Phillies made a statement to their fan base: When they say they think they have the talent to contend, they mean it.


On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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