CLEARWATER, Fla. - Three weeks ago, Ryne Sandberg was anxious and hopeful.
Sandberg was less than a week away from moving to Clearwater to prepare for his first spring as a major league manager and the last three spots in his starting rotation were filled with uncertainty. It was Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and . . . question marks.
"We'll see what happens," Sandberg said before the Philadelphia Sports Writers Dinner last month. "Something could still be done."
Less than 24 hours later, veteran starting pitcher A.J. Burnett announced that he was forgoing retirement and ready to pitch in 2014. Two weeks later, the Phillies had an agreement with the free-agent pitcher, completely changing the structure of the starting rotation.
Once again, it's a team strength, and Sandberg was downright giddy while he sat next to his shiny new toy during an introductory press conference yesterday.
"He's a belated Christmas present and Valentine's Day present that I've been waiting for," Sandberg said. "A little late, but I'll take it. He's a difference-maker for us. He's a big piece . . . I couldn't be happier."
After revitalizing his career in Pittsburgh the last two seasons, Burnett chose to hop across the state for 2014 - and possibly 2015 - when he signed a 1-year, $16 million contract. The deal, which became official yesterday, can pay the pitcher as much as $33.5 million if he makes 30 or more starts in both 2014 and 2015.
The 37-year-old Burnett has made at least 30 starts in six straight seasons. In the last 2 years, the righthander is 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA in 61 starts.
"Getting an opportunity to bring A.J. to Philadelphia is kind of the perfect fit for us," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "[He's a] top-of-the-rotation talent, someone who knows what it takes to win a championship, somebody who knows how to pitch when the game is on the line and when the season is on the line."
Amaro got the approval from ownership to pursue Burnett, despite a rising payroll that will inch close to the $189 million luxury tax by Opening Day. It will be the largest payroll in franchise history.
But Amaro said Burnett would have been at the top of his shopping list when the winter began if he knew he was set on pitching in 2014, and not leaning toward retirement. Burnett led the National League in strikeout rate and ground-ball rate in 2013, which should play well in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park.
Burnett, meanwhile, said choosing the Phillies was "a no-brainer."
Surely the Phillies' lucrative offer - the Pirates reportedly offered a 1-year, $12 million deal - had something to do with it. But Burnett was seriously considering retirement because he has two sons - 9 and 12 years old - who "crave a dad at this time in their life."
In signing with the Phillies, Burnett feels he can balance baseball with family. Citizens Bank Park is about a 90-minute drive from his home in Monkton, Md.
"A hop, skip and a jump from where I live," said Burnett, who made it to Clearwater from his home in 16 hours on Saturday. "This is the first time in my career I made a decision that wasn't about A.J. Burnett. It was about my wife. It was about my kids. It was about playing somewhere where I'm at home and can still do what I love."
The Phillies, eager to find a dependable replacement for the retired Roy Halladay, knew there was a possible fit in Burnett for a while. Halladay, Burnett's former teammate in Toronto, even texted the pitcher, telling him he had a house available for him in Philly.
After the deal was finished, Halladay did give Burnett something: The former Phillie offered his blessing to his ex-teammate to take his No. 34, a number Burnett has worn most of his pro career as well as in high school.
But besides Halladay's text, the Phillies played it cool all winter. So cool that their assistant general manager didn't pester the free-agent pitcher all offseason while sharing a coaching whistle.
Burnett and Scott Proefrock are both friends and neighbors in Maryland, living a couple miles away from each other. They have been friends since 2006 and their kids play on the same basketball team, a team they co-coached this winter.
"[Proefrock] said to 'keep me in mind' and that was probably late November, early December - and that was the last we talked about it," Burnett said of the baseball free-agent talk between the two. "It was all about basketball and having fun with the kids."
When Burnett decided he wanted to pitch in 2014, his agent, Darek Braunecker, went to work in search of an ideal suitor. Braunecker is also the representative for Cliff Lee; he hammered out a 5-year, $120 million deal with the Phillies four winters earlier, with Proefrock as the team's point man in the negotiations.
The Phillies once again reeled in a Braunecker client, outbidding the Pirates. Burnett said the only two clubs closer to his home than the Phillies, the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals, showed very little interest.
But Burnett also likes the makeup of a Phillies team he admired from afar while with the Marlins and then with the Yankees during the 2009 World Series. Burnett held the Phillies to one run on four hits in seven innings of a 3-1 win in Game 2 of the World Series.
If the Yankees didn't win that game, they would have been down 2-0 in the series as it changed venues to Citizens Bank Park.
"They did get me pretty good, I think, when I came back through, though," said Burnett, who gave up six runs in just two innings and lost Game 5 in Philadelphia. "That's part of the game and just shows you the kind of guys they have here. I pitched a pretty good game against them and they came back and did what they did. That's kind of who you want to pitch for."
Burnett's new contract will pay him $15 million in 2014 with a $1 million buyout and a mutual option for 2015. Burnett also has a $7.5 million player option for 2015 that he can exercise.
Burnett was able to score a generous contract, even at his age and even this late into the offseason, because he is coming off two of the best seasons of his career. Burnett went 10-11 with a 3.30 ERA in 30 starts with the Pirates, helping guide the team to its first playoff appearance in 21 years.
"I found who I was again. I went there - and I'd never put myself as a Halladay - but as far as a mentor and player-relationship-wise, that's what I became [in Pittsburgh]," Burnett said. "I never really looked at myself as that guy, but as soon as I walked in that door, that's who I was. I had no say in the matter, and it showed me who I could have been for a long time, and wasn't. And it brought out a lot of me that wasn't there [before]."
In his first full season in the major leagues, Burnett walked nine batters en route to pitching a no-hitter in San Diego. He was more thrower than pitcher in his younger days with the Marlins; in the years since, he's matured and found a way to harness his talent.
Burnett expects it to continue in Philadelphia.
"One of the things I think I learned in 2012 and even in '09 is that I am a difference-maker and I am that guy," Burnett said. "I look forward to coming here and showing these guys what I'm about."