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.

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25 comments

  1. Richard

    February 17, 2012 09:01 PM

    Just as a pitcher, I’d like to see Blanton stay with the Phillies this year (plus, I think he’ll have a good year, and going forward is better than Burnett). That said, it does seem highly unlikely that the Phillies see Blanton in their post-2012 plans. With Halladay & Lee, and hopefully Hamels, they’d be unlikely to extend him again, or sign him back as a FA. Given that, it makes sense to try to get something back for him, even if it’s recouping some of the salary.

    Still wish people understood his deal better. It was a good, smart decision to extend him at the time. Just didn’t pan out on the field, because of injuries.

  2. Hunterfan

    February 17, 2012 10:13 PM

    This makes no sense, if true, unless the Phillies are convinced Blanton’s arem is about to fall off. Not sure how Burnett represents a significant upgrade if not.

  3. awh

    February 18, 2012 10:13 AM

    Hunterfan, Burnett is an upgrade in that he has been healthy. That’s about all I have.

  4. hk

    February 18, 2012 11:27 AM

    In addition to being healthy, Burnett’s an upgrade in that he’s been a better pitcher than Blanton and, as Bill points out, he’s under contract through 2013 (at a reasonable rate assuming that the Phils could have gotten him at the same price that the Pirates are paying).

    I assume that RAJ contacted the Pirates and made an effort to trade Blanton there. If so, it is telling to know that Pittsburgh preferred 2 years of Burnett at $13.5M to one year of Blanton at $8.5M or less (depending upon how much of his contract the Phillies were willing to pay).

  5. Jhole

    February 18, 2012 05:00 PM

    hk – I’m assuming that the Phillies would have had to eat some of Blanton’s salary as well, there is no way the Pirates would have taken all $8.5M of Blanton’s salary. I would assume something more like what Bill said, in a salary dump and getting a medium to low end prospect or two, have the trading team pay roughly $5M of Blanton’s salary with the Phillies eating the rest. Then they can use that savings for a trade this July or truly begin in earnest to negotiate Hamels’ fair market extension.

  6. hk

    February 18, 2012 05:59 PM

    Jhole,

    I don’t disagree that the Phillies probably would have had to pay some of Joe’s salary, which makes it all that much more telling that the Pirates preferred to pay $13.5M to Burnett for 2 years than to pay ~$5M to Blanton for 1 year.

  7. awh

    February 19, 2012 12:28 PM

    KK haters beware: He’ll be around for 2 more years.

  8. Jhole

    February 19, 2012 01:41 PM

    Agreed hk – I think we are more on the same page than originally thought.

    My guess, really, is that Blanton will get dealt prior to Opening Day. That’s the hope at least.

  9. Phils_Goodman

    February 19, 2012 03:10 PM

    “Hamels aside, the Phillies would have had cost certainty for the most important elements of their 25-man roster going into next season.”

    How eerily prescient, just as Kendrick and the Phillies are working out a head-scratching two year deal… I really don’t know what the “end game” is here, but I still hope it involves Oswalt instead of Blanton in the 5-man rotation. Is there ANY chance that Kendrick took a lower 2012 salary in exchange for more guaranteed money in 2013? (Help).

  10. Phils_Goodman

    February 19, 2012 03:20 PM

    Wait, wait, wait. Blanton at $5M/1 is much more attractive than Burnett at $13.5M/2 from a purely baseball perspective, right? It has to be… Unless Blanton’s arm injury is something really exotic, isn’t he very competitively priced at $5M? 6 WAR from 2008-2010… If they really want to move him in ST, I think someone will step up to the plate at that price.

  11. I_Batman

    February 19, 2012 03:28 PM

    I am a Jays fan, living near Toronto. Keep in mind, Burnett had one of his best years when Doc was there to crack the whip on him.

    When Burnett was in Toronto, AJ made a big deal about how much it was of value to him to work alongside Doc every day.

    Maybe Phillie mgmt talked to Doc about whether Doc thinks he can straighten out AJ’s head, yet again.

    Personally, I think the million dollar arm, 10 cent brain type pitchers should be avoided at all costs, but then again, Burnett still has crazy good stuff.

  12. hk

    February 19, 2012 03:41 PM

    Phils_Goodman,

    Burnett was worth 10.4 WAR from 2008-10. Why is 1 year of Blanton at $5M > 2 years or Burnett at $13M?

  13. Phils_Goodman

    February 19, 2012 07:52 PM

    I went back to ’08 for Blanton to get 3 full seasons because of his injury last year. Burnett has 6.4 WAR his last 3 seasons and is trending down, plus his ERA has been even worse than his FIP. The overall financial commitment for Burnett is 270% more than Blanton at $5 M.

    With Blanton the issue is rather uncomplicated. He needs to heal. If Blanton has a healthy arm, you get a 2+ WAR pitcher for $5 M.

    With Burnett, it’s much more difficult to figure out what has been eroding his skill and how to adress it. You have a 1-4 WAR pitcher for $6.75 M per year. But each bit of value over 2 WAR is substantially less probable.

  14. hk

    February 20, 2012 07:05 AM

    Phils_Goodman,

    In stating that Blanton at $5M / 1 is mcuh, much more attractive than Burnett at $13M / 2 and then defending your position, you did the following:

    1. Minimized the potential for Blanton’s health issues to reoccur. Obviously, we don’t know if it is something really exotic and Joe is on record as saying he threw all winter, but if asked to wager on which pitcher throws more innings in 2012, I’d take Burnett.

    2. Valued ERA above DIPS as a projection tool. When you say “plus his (Burnett’s) ERA has been even worse than his FIP, you miss the point. The FIP is saying that he did not pitch as poorly as his ERA indicates. FIP and the other DIPS are better predictors of future ERA than ERA, so the lower FIP is a benefit for Burnett in the argument.

    3. Ignore the differences in pitching in the AL and NL. I understand why you ignored 2011 when looking at Blanton’s stats, but there is still a degree of cherry-picking involved when using 2008-10 Blanton, especially if you are going to ignore 2008 for Burnett and use 2009-11 Burnett in your comparison. Even so, relative to their respective leagues, their #’s are very comparable. Blanton’s xFIP- was 98 while Burnett’s was 99 and each had a 107 FIP-.

    4. Ignore the benefits of cost certainty. Since the financial commitment to Burnett is $13M, not $13.5M, it is 160% > than the assumed cost of Blanton. However, it is silly to look at the total financial commitment instead of the AAV because Pittsburgh would get 2 years of Burnett and only 1 of Joe. If the Pirates trade for Joe and he gives them the 2+ WAR season that you expect, they most likely won’t have him for 2013 and will have to pay a free agent to replace him or find another team looking to dump a salary. As a free agent coming off a 2+ WAR season, he may not be interested in re-upping with Pittsburgh (similar to Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt turning down offers from the Pirates) and even if they do re-sign him, it would probably cost more than $8M.

    I believe that Burnett, who put up 6.4 WAR with the Yankees over the last three years will benefit from getting out of Yankee Stadium and the AL East and into PNC Park and the NL Central. I am also skeptical that Joe will pitch 180+ innings this year. As such, I would say the chance that Pittsburgh gets 4+ WAR from Burnett over the next 2 years > the chance that they would get 4+ WAR from Joe Blanton in 2012 + another P that they acquire for $8M or less for 2013.

  15. Phils_Goodman

    February 20, 2012 02:57 PM

    1. The survival rate for elbow surgery is higher than ever these days. Burnett himself is just one example. And he’s 35. That is not friendly territory for pitcher attrition. The commitment is longer and more expensive. For $8 million less, Blanton IS much less risky.

    2. How did I value ERA over FIP? Just by mentioning ERA? FIP has been charitable to Burnett, but teams pay for ERA. Yes, FIP predicts ERA better, but Burnett’s replacement level ERA over the last ~375 innings deserves at least a little caveat here. It’s not such a small sample size. As your sample size gets bigger, ERA means more. And with Burnett, the real disaster the last two years is Burnett’s 0.6 rWAR, not his 3 fWAR. If it was my $13 M, that would scare me.

    3. I don’t know how else to handle it. Unless you expect Blanton to wreck his elbow 1 out of every 3 years, there’s no good way to make the numbers match up side by side, and there’s also no reason to risk anything on Blanton. I wanted the last 3 full seasons from each pitcher. Just looking at 2008-2011 fWAR for A.J. Burnett does not tell the story. If A.J.’s expected performance was just a perfect sphere floating around an annual 3.5 WAR mean, the Yankees would not be so desperate to trade him.

    Maybe projections are better able to demonstrate the situation. The 2012 projections I can find for Blanton peg him at 4.00-4.25 ERA, while Burnett falls in the 4.3-4.6 range. His value is extremely depressed.

    4. I don’t think cost certainty is necessarily such a benefit in this case. Making less of a commitment is less of a risk, especially when the players involved have dependability issues. I think that’s $8 million better saved for another day. There have to be good ways the Pirates could use that money.

    Supposing Burnett had entered the free agent market this winter, I don’t think there’s any chance he gets a 2/$13 M offer. Just because others turned the Pirates down, it wouldn’t justify throwing money at Burnett if there were other options available (such as Joe Blanton at $5 M, hypothetically).

  16. hk

    February 20, 2012 04:09 PM

    1. We can agree to disagree that Blanton IS much less risky.

    2. I must have misinterpreted your comment about Burnett’s ERA being worse than his FIP.

    3. My point about Blanton’s 2008-2010 vs. Burnett’ 2009-2011 was that their respective FIP and xFIP #’s were very similar when factoring in the difference in leagues. As far as projections are concerned, I really don’t know much about the methodology behind them. Will the projections change with Burnett’s relocation from the AL East and Yankee Stadium to the NL Central and PNC Park? It would seem that they should.

    4. In a market where Chris Capuano got $10M for 2 years and Aaron Harang got $12M for 2 years, I don’t see why $13M for 2 years for Burnett is unreasonable. The Pirates would have paid it and reportedly the Angels would have paid it and the Phillies were interested in paying it if they could find a taker for Blanton.

  17. Phillie697

    February 21, 2012 12:41 PM

    hk,

    I do have to point out that IF Blanton proves to be healthy again, paying him $5M this year means you can afford to pay him $8.5M next year and it would be equal to Burnett, with the advantage being that you’ll get to find out the goods before you commit the $8.5M, PLUS you won’t have to give up as many prospect assets.

    That said, I don’t think one deal is any worse than the other.

  18. hk

    February 21, 2012 01:26 PM

    Phillie697,

    If Blanton is healthy and produces a 2 WAR season, there is no certainty that you can get him to take a pay cut and pitch for you for $8M in 2013, especially if you are Pittsburgh. The Pirates reportedly offered Edwin Jackson more than he got from Washington and also reportedly offered Oswalt a deal, but they got rejected by both.

  19. Phillie697

    February 21, 2012 02:09 PM

    Blanton didn’t get anywhere near $20M/yr for his 5 WAR season (yes, boys and girls, Joe Blanton actually had a 5 WAR season), so I think if he produces only a 2 WAR season, $8.5M will be about right for his market value for a 32-year-old pitcher. Now, if he produces more than 2 WAR then he’ll get more expensive, but then you’re also be buying a better product, plus you would have won out on his $5M deal.

    And I still hold out hope for Blanton. ERA notwithstanding, his peripherals were fantastic last year. SSS aside, highest K rate in his career, lowest BB rate (1.96 BB/9!!!), fantastic GB% (coinciding with increased usage of the sinker), outdone by an insane .362 BABIP (career avg .299, so we can safely say it’s probably bad luck). I still think we can do a lot worse at that 5th spot.

  20. hk

    February 21, 2012 02:28 PM

    Following Blanton’s 5+ WAR season in 2007, he was only arb-eligible for the first time, so the $20M per year is irrelevant. $4M/WAR or $5M/WAR (or whatever price tag you want to impose) are only relevant in free agency.

    Like you, I hold out hope for Blanton, but a large part of that hope is based on his health. I am not unhappy with the results that he provides when he throws 180+ innings. I also think Burnett will do well outside of the AL and Yankee Stadium. If I had to bet which pitcher would produce more WAR/IP over the next few years, I’d lean to Burnett.

    From the Pirates perspective, the comparison is Burnett at $13M / 2 vs. Blanton at $5 / 1 and, because I am concerned about Blanton’s ability to provide 180 or more IP and I know how tough it is for Pittsburgh to attract free agents, I am okay with their choice of Burnett (assuiming RAJ offered Blanton and $3.5M to put towards his salary).

    From the Phils’ perspective, it is a little different because the Phils would have been paying $3.5M of Blanton’s contact to the team to which they traded him. Therefore, for the Phils, the comparison is Burnett at $16.5M / 2 or Blanton at $8.5 / 1. In this situation, I would not have been unhappy if RAJ had entered a three-way deal with Blanton ending up in Pittsburgh, Burnett here and two prospects going from Pittsburgh to the Bronx.

  21. Phillie697

    February 22, 2012 10:03 AM

    How did you get 16.5M for Burnett? Wasn’t he owed something like 25M before the trade? If the Phillies had entered into a three-way negotiation, trust me, Yankees would not have offered to eat that much money. Plus Pittsburgh wouldn’t give up 2 prospects for Blanton. In that scenario we would have to cough up one ourselves. I would rather keep Blanton, knowing that we might need the cap room to keep Hamels next year. And btw, that might be a reason why RAJ signed Kendrick to a two-year deal, as a possible fifth starter next year. Scary thought, one I will reluctantly accept if we get to keep Hamels, but I will only do so kicking and screaming about the Howard and Papelbon contracts.

  22. hk

    February 22, 2012 10:21 AM

    The Yankees are already removed from the equation. They got their two mid-level prospects and their salary relief and they cannot prevent Pittsburgh from trading Burnett to the Phillies. So, if the Pirates (like some who have commented on here) prefer Blanton at $5M for 1 year to Burnett at $13M for 2 years, the Phils could swap Blanton + $3.5M (to bring Pittsburgh’s commitment to $5m for Joe) for Burnett. It would cost the Phils $16.5M (the $3.5M they are sending to Pittsburgh plus the $13M that Pittsburgh owes) for Burnett for 2 years as compared to what the Phils have now, which is Blanton for $8.5M.

  23. hk

    February 22, 2012 10:35 AM

    If getting Burnett would prevent the Phillies from keeping Hamels, I would be against the deal. However, if that was the case, why was RAJ interested in Burnett in the first place?

    You might be right that RAJ is planning to have Kendrick or next year’s Joel Pineiro-like free agent replace Blanton in the rotation and commit the savings from 2012 Blanton towards an increase for Hamels. If the plan for 2013 is to extend Hamels and have Kendrick and the Pineiro-type as the #5 starter and #6 starter / long reliever, they can go from paying Hamels, Blanton and Kendrick $26.5M in 2012 to paying ~$26.5M to Hamels (~$21M), Kendrick ($4.5M) and the free agent (~$1M) to fill the same roles.

  24. hk

    February 22, 2012 11:30 AM

    “Maybe projections are better able to demonstrate the situation. The 2012 projections I can find for Blanton peg him at 4.00-4.25 ERA, while Burnett falls in the 4.3-4.6 range. His value is extremely depressed.”

    FWIW, the ZiPS projection for Blanton’s ERA is 4.43 while the revised ZiPS projection for Burnett’s ERA, now that he is in Pittsburgh, is 4.22.

  25. Phillie697

    February 22, 2012 12:40 PM

    Ohhhh, you mean the Pirates would turn around and trade Burnett to the Phillies for Blanton now? Yeah, I wouldn’t do that if I were the Pirates, or the Phillies for that matter (for the reason I just mentioned above about Hamels). Being interested doesn’t mean he was going to do the deal (if anything, one thing I do like about RAJ is his willingness to explore). Maybe he was looking for the Yanks to eat more money than the Pirates did, who knows.

    And next year’s Joel Pineiro-like free agent might be Joel Pineiro himself, LOL.

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