Phillies X-factors: Cole Hamels, A.J. Burnett

Phillies X-factors: Cole Hamels, A.J. Burnett

Lee on Phillies: 'It's the year to turn it around'

March 30, 2014, 3:00 pm
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Opening day is tomorrow, so Phillies analysts Corey Seidman and John Finger are breaking down the X-factors to the team's 2014 success.

On Friday, we covered Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. On Saturday, we looked at bullpen X-factor Jake Diekman.

Today: Cole Hamels and A.J. Burnett

There's a natural link between Cole Hamels and A.J. Burnett. Burnett may not have been a Phillie if not for Hamels' revelation the day before spring training that he was dealing with shoulder tendinitis.

For the first month of the season, Burnett will fill Hamels' role as the Phillies' No. 2 starter. Once Hamels returns, Burnett will slot back to No. 3 to form -- at least on paper -- one of the top trios in any major-league rotation.

The production the Phillies get from the No. 2 and No. 3 spots in the rotation will dictate the level of success they have in 2014. Ace Cliff Lee is as consistent as it gets -- the Phils can bank on 200-plus innings, an ERA around 3.00 and excellent strikeout/walk splits from him.

Hamels can be just as dominant, but got off to a slow start last year that resulted in a slow start for the team.

Hamels had a 3.60 ERA last season, his highest since a notoriously rocky 2009. The higher ERA was due mostly to five poor starts in his first 12. Hamels ended May with a 4.86 ERA, then had a 2.96 ERA the rest of the way.

With Hamels likely returning the last week of April, the Phillies can't afford for him to take two months to get in sync again. If that's the case, they'll be out of the NL wild-card race by the beginning of July and at the point where selling off parts is a necessity.

As for Burnett, the Phillies need him to be the pitcher he was with Pittsburgh in 2012 and 2013. Burnett had a 3.41 ERA in 61 starts over those two years, with the second-highest groundball rate in the major leagues and 389 strikeouts in 393 1/3 innings.

For Burnett to be as effective as he was for the Pirates, he'll need strong defense out of Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins up the middle. He'll also need Cody Asche to be a more reliable defender than he was in 50 major-league games last season. Asche showed range at third base but made five errors. If the infield defense isn't strong, Burnett's second-best quality (inducing grounders) will mean less.

Working under the assumption that Hamels misses four or five starts, the Phillies need these combined numbers from Hamels and Burnett: 60 starts, 390 innings, 380 strikeouts and a 3.40 ERA or lower. If they can muster that type of production, the starting staff will again be a strength capable of carrying the Phillies into meaningful September games.

Let’s search for the silver lining with Hamels and his injury-stalled start to the 2014 season. … Perhaps the Phillies will get off to a quick start and are in first place at the end of April when Hamels rejoins the team. Then, from there, the Phils’ pitching finds its groove and carries the team the rest of the way.

Too good to be true? Maybe. However, adding Hamels to the rotation at the end of April and beginning of May is like the trading deadline and Christmas come early.

The consensus in the Phillies’ clubhouse is that Hamels is one of the best lefties in the big leagues and the stat sheet does nothing to disprove that.

But maybe there’s something else lurking below the surface. During the beginning of his career Hamels dealt with chronic back issues. Everyday maintenance has kept Hamels healthy, but there have been flare-ups here and there. Remember 2009 when Hamels had some arm fatigue during spring training and never found his rhythm?

The Phillies hope the issues of the spring 2014 don’t conjure the difficulty of ’09. That was the season where he posted a 4.32 ERA and the only time he failed to pitch 200 innings when making at least 31 starts.

Another silver lining bit: Hamels learns from his mistakes. He was 25 in 2009 with one complete big-league season under his belt. At 30, Hamels is a veteran who has been around the block a time or two. There’s no reason to believe he won’t be as productive as he has been the last four seasons.

On Burnett
In 2012, Burnett was that savvy offseason pick up for the Pirates that helped put the team on the right path that culminated with a winning season and a playoff appearance last year.

But while Burnett arguably put up his best pair of back-to-back seasons in his 15 years in the big leagues, he hasn’t exactly been a huge workhorse. Yes, Burnett made 61 starts the last two seasons and has made at least 30 starts in the last six years. But, the hard-throwing righty has topped 200 innings just five times in his career and in back-to-back seasons just once.

One set of numbers that has been consistent throughout Burnett’s career is the number of pitches he throws. He’ll get 100 to 102 pitches through six innings and that will be it. He has completed just five games in the last six seasons and four of those were in the American League.

Don’t expect an old dog to learn new tricks nor much to change this late in Burnett’s career. He’ll be remarkably consistent with a few flashes of brilliance.