Burnett moves on, now Jays move on
Toronto focusing on 2009 and beyond without right-hander
TORONTO -- As the Winter Meetings came to a close on Thursday in Las Vegas, the Blue Jays, short the financial wherewithal to make a serious push to retain A.J. Burnett, still weren't ready to concede that they were out of the running to sign the coveted free-agent pitcher.
One day later, that all changed.
"We're not going to sign Burnett," Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi said on Friday night. "We know that."
Ricciardi's comments came shortly after Burnett agreed to terms with the Yankees on a guaranteed five-year deal worth a reported $82.5 million. Ricciardi noted that Burnett's agent, Darek Braunecker, hadn't contacted the Jays about the signing, but Toronto's chances of keeping the pitcher had waned significantly in recent weeks.
When Burnett officially agrees to put on the pinstripes, the Jays won't be left completely empty-handed. Since Burnett is a Type A free agent, and he rejected Toronto's arbitration offer on Sunday, the Jays would receive New York's second-round selection (59th overall) and a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds during the First-Year Player Draft in June.
Ricciardi had received ownership's approval to re-sign Burnett, who originally inked a five-year deal worth $55 million with Toronto prior to the 2006 season, but the Jays weren't willing to hand the right-hander another five-year pact. That, along with Toronto's financial limitations, helped the Yankees and Braves emerge as the front-runners to land Burnett.
The Jays will probably focus their efforts now on trying to sign free-agent shortstop Rafael Furcal, though adding him will take a little more fiscal creativity. Ricciardi has permission to sign Furcal, if the opportunity presents itself, but Toronto would subsequently need to clear some payroll through trades in order to make it happen.
With Burnett out of the picture north of the border, the Blue Jays plan on saving the $12 million he left on the table for '09, when he chose to opt out of his contract after three seasons. Burnett, who turns 32 in January, endured two injury-plagued campaigns in 2006-07, but he set a career high with 18 wins and led the American League with 231 strikeouts this past season.
"For us, I think we would've liked to have seen him pitch a little more in those first two years," Ricciardi said on Thursday. "Obviously, health [played a role]. But, when he took the ball, he was fine for us."
That was especially true down the stretch in 2008, when Burnett fashioned a 9-2 record with a 2.72 ERA and 113 strikeouts in his 15 starts after the All-Star break. Burnett's career year was only the second injury-free season of his 10-year career, though, and both of those showings came during contract year for the hard-throwing righty.
Signing Burnett comes with some risk, considering he's landed on the disabled list 10 times over his career with the Marlins and Blue Jays. That includes four stops between the first two seasons with Toronto, which is entering 2009 without injured starters Dustin McGowan (right shoulder) and Shaun Marcum (right elbow).
Given the current state of Toronto's rotation, which has two vacancies heading into Spring Training, manager Cito Gaston wasn't sure re-signing Burnett would've helped all that much for the upcoming season.
"If you really sit down and look at it," Gaston said this week, "would it make us a better team if we signed A.J. back right now? I don't think so. It wouldn't make us a bad team, but do we have enough? Do we have enough to get where we want to go with him back? Because we have two other starters that we're missing.
"We're not moving backwards, we're moving forward. But it's going to take us a little while to get there."
Thanks to a weakened Canadian dollar and a decrease in team sponsorships, the Blue Jays are moving forward with a slimmer payroll. In its search for pitching help, Toronto is looking at reclamation projects -- the club signed Matt Clement to a Minor League deal on Friday and is talking to Carl Pavano -- and will scour the trade market for available arms.
The Blue Jays also plan on throwing a handful of young arms into the mix for rotation jobs this spring. Behind ace Roy Halladay and youngsters Jesse Litsch and David Purcey, the list of starting candidates includes Casey Janssen, Brett Cecil, Ricky Romero, Scott Richmond and Brad Mills.
It's a crop of relatively inexperienced arms, making 2009 a season that will likely include some growing pains for the Jays.
"We've got the big picture in mind," said Ricciardi, referring to relying on younger arms. "We know those kids are going to fail at some point. They're not all just going to hit the ground running and take off. Any time you play young players, you're going to go through that. We're willing to let those guys go through the development curve."
Meanwhile, the Yankees are loading up with high-priced free agents, adding Burnett to a rotation that just gained left-hander CC Sabathia. The 2007 AL Cy Young Award winner agreed to terms on a seven-year, $161 million contract with the Yankees on Wednesday, allowing Burnett to settle comfortably into a No. 2 role on the staff.
Even before Burnett agreed to head to the Bronx, Gaston was fretting over having to take on that dominating 1-2 punch.
"He's a No. 1 starter for teams," Gaston said about Burnett. "So, yeah, he's going to be tough on us, too. If you've got him and Sabathia and they come up with [Derek] Lowe or [Ben] Sheets, they're going to be tough."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.