A.J. Burnett or Max Scherzer (or Justin Masterson or Homer Bailey…): That could be the question

Given the realities of the starting pitching market, the odds suggest that A.J. Burnett will command a two-year contract from whoever ends up landing him. The veteran right-hander is the same age and has a similar risk profile as 37-year-old Bronson Arroyo, who earlier this week signed a two-year, $23.5 million deal with the Diamondbacks. Burnett can certainly make a case that he is worth more than Arroyo, who has exhibited similar durability over the course of his career but who has inferior stuff. Burnett could argue for something closer to, or even surpassing, the two-year, $26.5 million contract that Ryan Dempster signed with the Red Sox last season. Given the uncertainty that surrounded his desire to play in 2014 during the early stages of the offseason, Burnett might prefer a one-year deal, in which case he could make a case for something in the neighborhood of the one-year, $16 million contract that Hiroki Kuroda landed from the Yankees. Consider that Dan Haren received one year and $10 million from the Dodgers despite drastically inferior performances over the past few seasons. We're probably talking about $15 million for a one-year deal and $28 million for a two-year deal. 

If Burnett holds out for a two-year deal, it should give the Phillies pause, because there is a very good chance that the $13 million to $15 million it would subtract from their 2015 payroll flexibility would be better spent on one of several quality free agent starting pitchers who are scheduled to hit the market after this season. Among them: Homer Bailey, Jon Lester, Justin Masterson, Max Scherzer and James Shields. Behind them are potential shorter-term pick-ups like Jake Peavy, Jorge De La Rosa and Wandy Rodriguez, and wild cards like Josh Johnson, Brett Anderson and Gavin Floyd. In short, the starting pitching market as it shapes up right now -- these players can sign extensions between now and then -- is likely to be deeper top to bottom next year.

The market should also feature some intriguing options at potential positions of need: Chase Headley and Pablo Sandoval at third base, Hanley Ramirez, Jed Lowrie and Asdrubal Cabrera at short stop or third base,  and Colby Rasmus and Brett Gardner in center field. In a perfect world, Cody Asche/Maikel Franco and Ben Revere render moot the conversations at third base and center field. That could leave the Phillies an "elite" No. 3 starter away from serious contention, perhaps a power righty like Masterson or Shields or, if they really want to get crazy, Scherzer. 

So while Burnett would appear to fill a clear need for this season, the question the Phillies might have to debate is: Burnett in 2014 and 2015, or a younger, more capable, less volatile No. 3 starter in 2015 and beyond.

The fact that the Phillies have negotiated with Burnett tells us that they are willing to push their payroll close to the luxury tax given the right combination of need and availability. Right now I have the Phillies payroll at around $169 million, including an estimated $10 million for player benefits, which counts toward the luxury tax threshold. Adding Burnett at $15 million would push that to $183 million. 

What does next year look like? A rough projection of $148 million if Dom Brown gets $3 million in arbitration, Ben Revere gets $3.5 million, and Rollins returns at $5 million, along with other rough approximations. That also includes the $10 million in benefits. It's hard to envision a scenario where the Phillies are able to sign Burnett to a two-year deal and spend $18+ million on another player next season, assuming they want to keep payroll at or below this year's level.

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