Burnett confident he will succeed in '07
Right-hander determined to be integral part of Jays' rotation
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- A.J. Burnett strolled onto the Blue Jays' Spring Training grounds earlier this weekend, walking alone with a duffel bag slung over his shoulder.
When Burnett arrived, he wasn't immediately swarmed by a horde of reporters. As he walked, all eyes at the Bobby Mattick Training Center weren't trained on him. It was a stark contrast to last spring, when Burnett provided the buzz after signing a five-year, $55 million deal to pitch for the Blue Jays.
The weight of the expectations that came along with the contract took a toll on Burnett last season. Landing on the disabled list twice with an elbow injury only made it worse for the right-hander.
Now, though, the 30-year-old is healthy and his bankroll isn't the main focus as pitchers and catchers begin their workouts at camp. Those facts have helped him feel more comfortable and more confident that he can become the pitcher Toronto believes he can be.
"I'm definitely more relaxed," said Burnett, standing at his locker on Friday. "You come in with the contract and you want to prove to everybody [that you're worth it]. Then you get hurt and you want to prove to everybody faster."
This past offseason, Burnett decided to take things a bit slower. He threw off a mound just once over the winter, kept his workouts and throwing sessions indoors, and used massage therapy to help keep his arm loose during the cold months.
Burnett didn't play catch outside until his arrival in Florida, and that's fine as far as the Blue Jays are concerned. He'll likely be an integral part of any success Toronto has this season. That's why a gradual approach this spring could be beneficial for Burnett, who initially injured his right elbow last year during a Spring Training game.
Toronto pitching coach Brad Arnsberg has been pleased with the slight adjustments Burnett made to his training program, and Arnsberg also noticed a positive change in the pitcher's attitude over the winter.
"He's got his feet on the ground a little more than he did last year," Arnsberg said. "Even in the offseason, talking with him a couple times, he seems a lot more grounded and he seems like he's going in the right direction. Where last year, I know he had the weight of the world on his shoulders."
Toronto signed Burnett in December 2005 to be the No. 2 starter behind staff ace Roy Halladay. The duo, if healthy, could provide the Jays with one of the more impressive one-two punches in all of baseball. Burnett wasn't able to follow Halladay regularly in the rotation until late last June because of the injury woes, though.
The enigma has been that, even when Burnett has been healthy, he hasn't been able to consistently match his potential. His resume includes a no-hitter, his fastball can approach 100 mph and he boasts a devastating curveball. Still, he's managed just a 59-58 record over eight seasons.
"I don't know," said Toronto manager John Gibbons, when asked why he thought Burnett hasn't won more in his career. "He's got a golden arm -- one of the best arms out there. He's had a little trouble in the past harnessing it sometimes."
"It's human nature to always try to prove your worth," he added. "Baseball is a game where sometimes the harder you try, the worse it is. It's such a skill game, and sometimes that backfires on you. "
The Blue Jays saw a flash of what Burnett is capable of doing in the final two months of last season. He was inconsistent in the first nine outings he made after being activated from the DL on June 22, but Burnett feels he was trying too hard to prove he was over the injury.
At that point, Burnett was 3-5 with a 4.81 ERA -- a showing that fell below what Toronto needed from him. Once he settled down and focused more on pitching to contact, Burnett finished 7-3 with a 3.25 ERA in his final 10 trips to the mound.
"If you're going to win it all and get to the top, your pitching has got to be really strong," Gibbons said. "He's a guy that's fully capable of that, and he showed us that once he came back last year from his injuries. We're just hoping he picks up where he left off."
It was the kind of stretch that Burnett didn't want to end. He was finally showing that his health and the contract were no longer obstacles. Burnett was pitching with confidence and having a blast along the way.
"I didn't want to stop," Burnett said. "I was just coming into myself, and I was healthy and having fun. It takes a while to settle in once you get somewhere new and I'm looking forward to starting like I've been here for 10 years."
His quiet entrance to Spring Training this season showed that he is just one of the Blue Jays now -- not the walking spectacle that created a constant media circus a year ago. His role isn't any less important, but Gibbons feels that Burnett will be able to handle the pressure better now that he's already survived the first year with Toronto.
"He's not the focus as much anymore," Gibbons said. "I think that'll do wonders for him. Plus, he knows his teammates, and he really enjoyed being in Toronto -- that helps. Those things matter sometimes. It's just not all baseball."
Burnett probably enjoyed his uneventful start to the spring, but the reality is that the expectations will still be there. His every move might not be scrutinized nearly as much as last year in the coming weeks, but he knows that hefty contract will still be a topic for four more seasons.
"I'm sure it's going to come up in every article, just like it was last year. I dont mind it," Burnett said with a smile. "I'm going to work my tail off and bust my butt so [the contract] doesn't have to be brought up all the time. I'm here to win, and I can win, and that's basically all it is."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.