What the Phillies’ Interest in A.J. Burnett Means

ESPN’s Buster Olney dropped this interesting piece of information on Twitter:

The other team involved in the A.J. Burnett talks was the Philadelphia Phillies. Obviously would’ve had to clear Blanton to make it work.

The New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates are very close to finalizing a deal that would send Burnett to the Pirates in exchange for prospects Diego Moreno and Exicardo Cayones. The Yankees would pay $20 million of the $33 million remaining on the right-hander’s contract. The news about the Phillies’ involvement is only interesting for drawing inferences.

The first thing we can draw from it is that the Phillies are intent on dealing soon-to-be free agent Joe Blanton before the end of spring. That is obvious from Buster’s tweet, but even if his salary didn’t need to be cleared, he would have to be moved anyway. With the other four rotation slots locked up (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Vance Worley), Burnett would have had to take over Blanton’s spot.

Blanton made eight starts last year before succumbing to an elbow injury in May, and remains an enigma going into spring training. Owed $8.5 million, the Phillies will use spring training to show off Blanton’s health and ability. In the event Blanton draws interest, the Phillies would prefer that they be relieved of some or all of his salary, which means a straight salary dump is the most likely scenario.

Secondly, the interest in A.J. Burnett means that the Phillies prefer Kendrick as insurance or as a swing-man rather than a de facto fifth starter. It has been no secret that the Phillies are very appreciative of Kendrick’s services over the years, but even the team that willingly decided to pay him close to $3.6 million this season realizes his applicability in the rotation is limited at best. Kendrick has a career 4.65 xFIP, including 4.42 last year, despite a 3.22 ERA. Of course, the Phillies would gladly move Kendrick to the #5 spot if it results in significant salary relief, but those scenarios are few and far between.

Acquiring Burnett would have been superfluous, but he would have provided an upgrade in the back of the rotation. The oft-criticized Yankee posted a 3.86 xFIP last year, although his 5.15 ERA was due to two big factors: a lackluster walk rate (nearly four per nine innings) and a skyrocketing home run rate (17 percent of fly balls). Furthermore, Burnett would have been under team control through 2013. Hamels aside, the Phillies would have had cost certainty for the most important elements of their 25-man roster going into next season.

The Key for Chase Utley

If you listened to my spot on ESPN’s Baseball Today podcast, you heard me mention that Chase Utley is crucial to the Phillies’ success in 2012. Mark Simon, of ESPN Stats & Information, posted a blog illustrating Utley’s declining performance against left-handed pitching. Traditionally without a platoon split, it was surprising to see Utley struggle so much throughout the year, but it may be a one-off due to his knee problems.

More concerning is Utley’s declining performance after July. Given Utley’s nature to run full-speed for every routine out and dive for every ground ball, the obvious explanation is that the second baseman simply runs out of gas with two months to go.

In the past, the Phillies have hinted that they would like to give Utley more time off, but it never happened. At the end of December, one of the three New Year’s Resolutions I picked for the Phillies was to give Utley more scheduled rest. Utley means more to the Phillies at close-to-100-percent in 130 games than he does at below-70-percent in 150 games (if the Phillies are lucky enough to see him in that many games, anyway).

Don’t forget that Utley’s durability doesn’t just affect his bat; it affects his base running (29 total stolen base attempts in the last two seasons compared to 23 in 2009 alone) and his defense (his range runs over the last two seasons, per FanGraphs, were the lowest since 2006). Perhaps the days of Utley being a 7-8 win player are over, but he can still reach the 5-6 win plateau with the correct application.