A fit for Phillies pitching needs?
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Ruben Amaro Jr. hurriedly escaped a midafternoon meeting yesterday with reporters.
Where was he going? Are the Phillies closing in on making a deal before the winter meetings end today?
"We've got stuff going on," a coy Amaro said. "We've got something for you - maybe."
"No, not before you leave [here tomorrow]," Amaro said. "But there are still 24 hours or something left. You never know."
The Phillies have made no bones about their need to increase their starting pitching depth. Beyond Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, the rotation has the inconsistent Kyle Kendrick, the mostly inexperienced Jonathan Pettibone, and uncertain Cuban rookie Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez.
Amaro acknowledged the Phillies needed to add multiple arms to that list of potential starters. He said he'd like for one of them to be a No. 2 or No. 3 starter.
Perhaps they're zeroing in on a name or two?
A few signings by other teams yesterday afternoon could offer some potential clues.
The New York Mets signed veteran starter Bartolo Colon to a 2-year, $20 million deal. Colon turns 41 in May, but he's had enough success in the last 2 years to be considered by a team looking for a high-talented pitcher on a shorter-term deal.
The Pittsburgh Pirates signed two pitchers. They extended one of their own, righthander Charlie Morton, with a 3-year, $21 million deal, and they spent $5 million on another righthanded starter, free agent Edinson Volquez.
Fresh off their first playoff appearance in 21 years, the Pirates have a starting-pitching stable that includes those two players, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke and Wandy Rodriguez.
How does that relate at all to the Phillies? With seven potential starters, the Pirates would appear to have moved on from free agent A.J. Burnett, although the club hasn't completely ruled out his return.
Earlier this month, the Pirates, however, moved a step closer to moving on when they failed to offer Burnett a $14.1 million qualifying offer. Although the Burnett talk has been virtually silent this month, he was reportedly deciding between returning to the Pirates and retirement.
Burnett, who turns 37 next month, would appear to be an ideal fit for the Phillies.
"We have left no stone unturned," Amaro said when asked if the Phils have talked with Burnett. "I don't have any idea what he's going to do."
After yesterday's events, returning to the Pirates looks highly unlikely. Would Burnett consider moving across the state to join the Phillies?
Burnett makes a home in the Baltimore area. Besides the Orioles and Nationals, the Phillies are the closest geographically to that home.
Phillies assistant general manager Scott Proefrock resides in the same area, where he commutes to Philadelphia. Proefrock and Burnett are both neighbors and friends.
Proefrock also has a strong working relationship with Burnett's agent, Darek Braunecker, who also represents Cliff Lee. Proefrock and Braunecker brokered Lee's $120 million deal three winters ago.
Amaro was asked about Proefrock's relationship with Burnett.
"His neighbor [Proefrock] is close with him [Burnett], but apparently not close enough," Amaro said with a laugh.
Why does Burnett match up with the Phillies, other than his familiarity with the guy who negotiates a lot of the team's contracts? For one, his age - and this isn't a bad joke about the Phillies' penchant this winter to spend millions on 35-and-older players.
The Phillies are trying to be a contender again in 2014, but do not need to add any more long-term deals that could hinder their ability to rebuild if need be in the short term, too. Free agents like Colon, Tim Hudson (who signed with the Giants for 2 years and $23 million) and Bronson Arroyo fit that mold of older-but-talented pitchers who could be had on shorter-term deals. So does Burnett.
The cost of starting pitching is extremely high this winter.
Second-tier starters are getting multiyear deals worth between $30 and $50 million and the younger, bigger names on the market like Matt Garza and Ervin Santana want long-term deals north of $80 million. Volquez, who was released by the Padres in August after going 9-10 with a 6.01 ERA in 27 starts, got $5 million from the Pirates.
With more than their share of pricey, long-term deals, the Phillies are looking smaller. The paltry starting-pitching depth almost requires the team to look for multiple, smaller deals rather than one, big signing or trade.
"It may be best to give us some depth on the pitching side, rather than going for a home run," Amaro said. "I like going for the home run a lot. It may be best for us to try to maintain some flexibility and add depth. There is a fine line. Should we try to hit a home run or hit a couple of doubles?"
Given his performances in each of the last two seasons, Burnett might be the equivalent of a triple. Since being dealt from the Yankees to the Pirates, Burnett has gone 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA in 61 starts with Pittsburgh in the last two seasons.
In the last five seasons, Burnett has averaged 32 starts per season and has logged 977 1/3 innings. Only 19 major league pitchers have pitched more innings during that span.
In finding a replacement for Roy Halladay, the Phillies need a pitcher who fits that picture of durability and dependability.
But Burnett hasn't just been an innings eater with the Pirates. He has been a consistent, top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
Burnett led all National League starters in strikeout rate and ground-ball rate in 2013, two stats that would play up in home-run-friendly Citizens Bank Park.
Perhaps Burnett will follow the path of Halladay, his former Toronto teammate, and retire. But he's healthy and he's coming off a season when he had a 3.30 ERA in 30 starts.
He's also a righthander, who has pitched in big games and at the top of rotations, that could potentially split up the Phillies' lefthanded duo of Hamels and Lee. Judging by the market, a 2-year deal in the neighborhood of $26 million to $32 million would seem appropriate.
Burnett almost makes too much sense for the Phillies. If "leaving no stone unturned" means Amaro is aware of that fact, perhaps there is a match that will help solve the Phillies' pitching needs.
On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21