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If Burnett retires, Phillies' rotation will need help

A.J. Burnett sounds as if he is leaning toward retiring after the season, which would leave Phillies' rotation shorthanded.

Phillies pitcher A.J. Burnett. (Michael Perez/AP)
Phillies pitcher A.J. Burnett. (Michael Perez/AP)Read more

A.J. BURNETT'S answer wasn't definitive, but it did reinforce the widely held belief that the veteran pitcher would lean toward retirement when the 2014 season ends.

After taking the mound for his 27th start of the season on Tuesday night, Burnett earned himself a half-million dollars (a performance bonus in his contract) and set himself up to make $1.5 million more for next year, too.

Burnett's player option for the 2015 season can increase twice more this season if and when he reaches 30 and 32 starts on the season. But following Tuesday's game, Burnett, 37, who flirted with retirement for most of last winter, was asked whether he had plans to pitch in 2015.

"I have no idea," he said. "Probably not. But we'll see."

Although Burnett's heavy salary (he can earn more than $12.75 million next year) and his uneven performance (a 5.23 ERA in his last 20 starts) might lead you to think his retirement would be good news for the Phillies, the state of the team's starting pitching going forward could make you think otherwise.

Only two pitchers in the current rotation are under contract for next season: shoo-in Opening Day starter Cole Hamels and righthander David Buchanan, who has shown promise but still has only 13 major league starts.

Cliff Lee, on the disabled list with an elbow injury for the second time this year, is also under contract. He is due to make $25 million in 2015.

But his current health - Lee had a platelet-rich-plasma injection earlier this month and won't reboot his throwing program until this fall - makes Lee a question mark going into April. At best.

If the Phillies hope to be relevant, let alone hopeful contenders in 2015, it seems they would need to be very aggressive this winter, whether it's through free agency or trades.

"I think it starts with starting pitching," manager Ryne Sandberg said last week. "Defense and athleticism behind the starting pitching, I think that's a good place to start."

Sandberg was asked about the state of his starting pitching since Hamels' name has been often bandied about in trade rumors.

"For me, the idea is to try to turn it around [here] rather quickly. You have to have starting pitching to do that, and [Hamels] is a big piece," Sandberg said. "We have question marks about Cliff. Cliff, we won't know. A.J., we don't know. You have to start your staff somewhere."

But even if Hamels returns to the top and Buchanan helps to fill out the bottom of the rotation, the Phillies could need as many as three starters next season. Part of the problem, of course, is there is little help ready on the farm.

Top pitching prospects Aaron Nola and Jesse Biddle could help at some point in 2015, but the former is only 10 games into his professional career and the latter missed 6 weeks this summer while on a "mental break." Lefthander Adam Morgan had shoulder surgery over the winter, and will need to work his arm back in the minor leagues before he's considered for the major leagues. Ditto Jonathan Pettibone.

With two starters (Hamels and Lee) on tap to make a combined $47.5 million in 2015, the Phillies would seem to be unlikely candidates to dip into the pricey portion of the free-agent pool: Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, James Shields.

They are likely more outfitted for second-tier starters, or buy-low candidates coming off subpar years. Justin Masterson, Brandon McCarthy, Ryan Vogelsong and J.A. Happ are all free agents who could fit those descriptions, along with Jason Hammel and Jorge De La Rosa.

The Phillies can only hope to go into the winter with some of their uncertainly regarding Burnett (and even Lee, too) alleviated.

"A.J. is a great guy, a great teammate," Hamels said yesterday. "He's a guy that has the veteran leadership . . . I think he's definitely helped out a lot of guys, especially the younger guys. If he's no longer here next year, it's going to be a big dent . . . He'll definitely be missed."

Kyle Kendrick and Jerome Williams are free agents. Williams could be a candidate to re-sign and also fill out the bottom of the rotation.


Jonathan Papelbon's save was his 30th of the season, making him the 10th pitcher in major league history to record 30 or more saves in eight or more seasons. Only four pitchers have racked up 30 or more saves in more consecutive seasons: Billy Wagner and Lee Smith (both in nine seasons), Trevor Hoffman (14) and Mariano Rivera (15) . . . As his 15th big-league season draws to a close, Jimmy Rollins (2-for-5) recorded the 800th extra-base hit of his career when he doubled in the third inning. For the sake of comparison with fellow shortstops, Derek Jeter entered the day with 863 extra-base hits in 20 big-league seasons and Hall of Famer Barry Larkin had 715 extra-base hits in 19 seasons . . . The Phillies are off today before the first of three games against the St. Louis Cardinals tomoorrw. Kyle Kendrick (5-11, 4.90 ERA) will pitch opposite fellow righthander Shelby Miller (8-9, 4.25). The Cardinals send All-Star Adam Wainwright (15-7, 2.40) to the mound Saturday against David Buchanan (6-7, 4.25). Sunday's series finale pits righthanders Jerome Williams (1-0, 2.19) and Justin Masterson (2-1, 6.30).