Today's signing of free agent starter A.J. Burnett by the Phillies (one year, $16MM, plus a mutual option) brings to an end a brief-but-interesting period of a fascinating free agent signing class. Long expected either to re-sign with the Pirates or instead retire, the 37-year-old threw a wrench into an already-straggling pitching market when it was revealed that he would not only return for another year, but would be open to alternative destinations. Having re-established himself as a top-end arm, but being available on a short-term deal, Burnett further downgraded the market outlook for draft-compensation-bound starters Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana. But by signing with the Phils, who had not figured to be in play for Jimenez or Santana, Burnett leaves the market much as he found it — albeit further slowed, perhaps. (Indeed, with Matt Garza going to another relatively unexpected landing spot with the Brewers, those hurlers may now be in a better position, timing notwithstanding.) Ultimately, the Phillies proved to be every bit the wild card I suggested they might be at the outset of the off-season, but in some respects functioned to restore the rest of the market to expectations.
- Of course, that is not to say that Burnett's signing is of little moment. To the contrary, it has important implications — in particular, for both of MLB's Pennsylvania-based franchises. As Ben Lindbegh of Baseball Prospectus writes, the Pirates may have learned a difficult lesson by failing to made Burnett a qualifying offer. Rejecting the hypotheses that the club did not want to sign him or was genuinely unable to do so financially, Lindbergh opines that the Pittsburgh likely mistakenly felt it would be readily able to get him back for less than the $14.1MM QO.
- Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington weighed in again on the qualifying offer decision, as Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports (Twitter links). Huntington acknowledged that such an offer arguably made quite a bit of sense from a "value standpoint." But, he explained, "the reality is in 10-15 markets a qualifying offer, if accepted, becomes a large chunk of payroll." As Huntington has stated previously, the team did not feel that it could take a $14.1MM payroll hit for Burnett.
- According to Huntington (links to Twitter, via Sawchik), Burnett "informed us it was family-based. The player made a decision to be closer to home." Declining to disclose whether the club made a competitive offer — he said that question was better posed to Burnett and his agent — Huntington said that "A.J. would have had the biggest single impact of any single move we made this off-season."
- From the Phillies' perspective, the deal runs the club's payroll up to approximately $189MM, a new club record, says Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer (via Twitter). Though the final tally is somewhat unclear, that means that Philadelphia could well approach or exceed MLB's $189MM luxury cap. As WEEI.com's Alex Speier has explained, the impact of going over that mark comes not just in the tax owed on overages, but in sacrificing the ability to participate in revenue-sharing refunds. Even if the Phils remain under the $189MM level on Opening Day, moreover, the cap could play a role in how the club weighs mid-season moves.
- Burnett's substantial salary would hinder his trade value if the Phillies end up looking to move him, tweets ESPN.com's Buster Olney. The newly-reported inclusion of a limited no-trade clause, likewise, represents a barrier to such a possibility and could substantially limit Burnett's market.
- Several commentators have weighed in positively on the deal on the Phillies' end. CSNPhilly.com's Corey Seidman, for instance, argues that the signing makes better sense of the club's earlier moves to sign veterans like Carlos Ruiz, Marlon Byrd, and Roberto Hernandez in a bid to make a playoff push. As Seidman notes, most of those deals have the added benefit of not adding long-term money to the books. MLB.com's Richard Justice offers that Burnett joins a cast of veterans who still have plenty of talent, and could help push the team into contention.
- On the flip side, the deal could be seen as throwing good money after bad given the club's aging roster. In the view of ESPN.com's Keith Law (Insider link), Burnett looks to represent solid value at a one-year commitment of $16MM. But, he says, Philadelphia was the wrong team to take on that big salary. Even assuming that Cole Hamels is mostly healthy — he is reportedly dealing with shoulder and biceps discomfort and will likely not quite be ready for Opening Day — Law argues that the club still looks like a .500 outfit. And the Phillies cannot take full advantage of Burnett's ability to induce grounders, says Law, because they field a below-average defensive infield and do not employ an analytics-based infield alignment strategy like that utilized by the Pirates.