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A.J. Burnett Signing Provides Perfect Cole Hamels Insurance, Chance to Contend

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A.J. Burnett Signing Provides Perfect Cole Hamels Insurance, Chance to Contend
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In the course of a whirlwind morning, the Philadelphia Phillies may have lost Cole Hamels for the start of the season, acquired A.J. Burnett and given themselves a slight chance to actually contend in 2014. 

Only in Philadelphia can doom, gloom and exuberance seamlessly come together. As pitchers and catchers get set for the season in Clearwater, Fla., the Phillies will undergo a massive change to their projected starting rotation.

First, the news came down, per Ryan Lawrence of the Philadelphia Daily News, about Cole Hamels' arm issue that will sideline him through March and past Opening Day.

According to Lawrence, Hamels felt discomfort in his left shoulder and biceps during his winter throwing program. 

“It’s not like there is any pain or discomfort (now),” Hamels said. “It’s just the building up the muscles (process). Like they say, you can’t run a marathon right off the bat.”

At this moment, there's little reason to believe that Hamels is going to be out for an extended period of time or lose more than a few April starts. His spring training, however, will be compromised if he can't work his way back into game action in March.

With the need for rotation insurance becoming a major issue in Philadelphia, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and the front office closed a deal with free-agent starter A.J. Burnett, signing the 37-year-old righty to a one-year, $16 million deal. Hayden Balgavy of THV 11 in Arkansas first reported the news. CSN Philadelphia's Jim Salisbury confirmed the news. Before long, FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal jumped in on the action:

Within an hour of losing an ace to arm discomfort, the Phillies added another.

Confused? It's understandable.

On the surface, the Hamels injury and Burnett signing can be taken many different ways: Is Burnett's arrival a reactionary move or precursor to a prolonged absence from Hamels? After watching the way Roy Halladay downplayed spring-training discomfort last year, is Hamels' season in jeopardy? Can Burnett's arrival make the Phillies a contender for the first time since 2011?

All of those questions are fair and should be posed to Amaro when he meets with the media in Clearwater.

Before garnering the answers, this much is clear: Burnett's arrival is a tremendous move for a franchise that hasn't made enough of them over the past few years. After dominating the NL Central in 2013, Burnett represented a bargain in the free-agent market.

Due to his late arrival on the open market, many teams didn't have the payroll flexibility to truly enter the mix. Plus, Burnett's preference to play within driving distance of his Maryland home made the Phillies a logical destination.

Regardless of how or why the Phillies came to an agreement with Burnett, it's a move that will change their fortune in 2014. 

For as long as Hamels is sidelined, Burnett can adequately replace his production atop the rotation alongside Cliff Lee. For a team that needs excellent starting pitching to contend, a rotation without Hamels or Burnett could have buried the Phillies in an enormous April hole.

Furthermore, if Burnett is as good as he was last year, the Phillies suddenly have reason to believe. 

A.J. Burnett 2013 Statistics
ERA 3.30
ERA+ 107
SO/9 9.8
SO/BB 3.12
IP 191.0
FIP 2.80
GB% 56.5

Baseball-Reference/FanGraphs

Entering the 2013 season, the Phillies portrayed themselves as a contender, despite an aging, decaying core. 

Why?

In their minds—along with baseball experts—the team had a shot to contend as long as the trio of Lee-Hamels-Halladay headlined its rotation, pitched 600-plus excellent innings and limited runs in more than 90 combined starts.

Due to Halladay's ineffectiveness, stemming from injury and eventual surgery, that plan never came to fruition. Despite getting 64 excellent starts from the combination of Lee and Hamels, the 2013 Phillies lost 89 games and finished with a worse run differential than the last-place Marlins.

Now, with Burnett in tow, the foundation for that dream can be laid once again. If the Phillies are going to contend in 2014, they'll need excellence from their new three-headed monster atop the rotation. When, or if, Hamels returns in mid-April, that idea isn't far-fetched.  

Last year, only 22 qualified starting pitchers owned an FIP (fielding independent pitching) mark of less than 3.30. Three of those 22 now reside atop the Phillies rotation. In fact, Philadelphia now boasts three of the top 18 starters based on FIP, per Fangraphs.

When using SO/BB rate as a reference point, the Lee-Hamels-Burnett trio ranked among the top 32 in baseball last season, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).

If you're not sold yet, consider this: Over the last two years, 21 starters have made at least 60 starts and compiled an ERA below 3.50. As you can probably imagine, Lee, Hamels and Burnett are among them, according to Baseball-Reference (subscription required). In 2011, on the path to 102 victories, the Phillies boasted a similar distinction when Lee, Hamels and Halladay all pitched to ERA marks below 2.80. 

Can the Phillies contend in 2014?

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To be fair, Burnett isn't going to make anyone leave a deposit for playoff tickets in Philadelphia. If Hamels is out for longer than expected, Burnett will simply fill his shoes and the Phillies will be a 75-win team in the NL East. 

Considering that their core hasn't played a full season together in a long, long time, the Burnett signing can't rescue this franchise alone. 

Expecting health out of the 2014 Philadelphia Phillies is a fool's errand. If Jimmy Rollins stays healthy and productive, it's unlikely that both Chase Utley and Ryan Howard will join him. Prior to Hamels' injury revelation, the Philadelphia Daily News' Ryan Lawrence asked if the team is too old and brittle to contend this season.

Per Lawrence's research: "All told, Howard, Utley, Ruiz and Rollins have started a whopping 116 games together in the last four seasons. The Phillies have played 648 games in that time."

In a perfect world, Hamels is fine by mid-April, the nucleus of a championship team stays healthy and Burnett gives the Phillies a dominant top three in the starting rotation. The formula could provide enough to keep Philadelphia on the outskirts of the postseason race this summer.

It's not a perfect world in Philadelphia, but Burnett's arrival offers a glimmer of hope for a downtrodden fanbase.

Agree? Disagree?

Comment, follow me on Twitter or "like" my Facebook page to talk about all things baseball. 

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.

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