A.J. BURNETT'S Phillies career came to an unceremonious end last night. The veteran pitcher thumbed his nose at the chance to stick with the team for a handsome salary in 2015.

Burnett declined a player option that would have paid him $12.75 million next season. The 37-year-old righthander instead will decide between signing with another team - he is a free agent - or retirement.

Burnett, who has earned more than $136 million in his 16-year career, would likely prefer to pitch for a contender if he does extend his career in 2015.

Burnett, who had a late-career renaissance in Pittsburgh in 2012 and 2013, mulled retirement for most of last winter before informing teams in January that he wanted to pitch; he signed with the Phillies a day before their first spring training workout. It's unclear whether Burnett's dud of a season with the Phillies will have him leaning closer to calling it quits this winter.

His agent, Darek Braunecker, did not return a phone call from the Daily News.

After signing a 1-year, $16 million deal last winter - a complicated contract that included several performance bonuses and options for a second year - Burnett was 8-18 with a 4.59 ERA. He led baseball in earned runs, walks and losses.

Although the Phillies are in dire need of pitching depth, Burnett's decision to turn down a guaranteed contract of a little less than $13 million is good news for the team.

The Phillies, who finished in last place last season for the first time since 2000, are not expected to compete in the National League East in 2015. The payroll is already chock-full of older, highly paid players in the twilight of their respective careers.

Even without Burnett, the Phillies have seven players who will be 35 or older in 2015 who account for $100.5 million of the projected Opening Day payroll: Ryan Howard ($25 million), Cliff Lee ($25 million), Jonathan Papelbon ($13 million), Jimmy Rollins ($11 million), Chase Utley ($10 million), Carlos Ruiz ($8.5 million), Marlon Byrd ($8 million).

All told, the Phillies have 10 players under contract for a total of $127.5 million in 2015, and that doesn't include the trio of Ben Revere, Antonio Bastardo and Domonic Brown, who will all get raises through arbitration. The payroll nightmare is nearing an end, however: only Howard, Hamels and Ruiz have guaranteed contracts for 2016.

Burnett's decision to become a free agent will help the front office balance the budget better for 2015.

Finally embracing a rebuild, the Phillies aren't likely to take the $12.75 million in saved dollars and spend it on another, 30-something veteran pitcher. They could instead put it toward a long-term deal for Cuban free-agent outfielder Yasmany Tomas, whom general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. personally scouted in the Dominican Republic in September.

Tomas, who turns 24 this month, would bring two much-needed traits to the Phillies: youth and power.

As for the Burnett-free starting pitching staff: Hamels, Lee, David Buchanan and Jerome Williams are expected to come to camp in February. With Lee coming off an injury-plagued 2014, Hamels, however, is the only proven and healthy commodity in the current 2015 rotation.

Even if Tomas becomes a priority, the Phillies will surely sign another pitcher (or three). But, thanks to Burnett, they have extra money to go around.

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese