Two years ago, A.J. Burnett's agent, Darek Braunecker, revisited the negotiations that led to his client signing a five-year, $55-million (U.S.) free-agent contract with the Toronto Blue Jays before the 2006 season.
Braunecker said he deliberately "slow-played the market." Don't look now, but Burnett is back in play in one of the slowest-developing player markets in decades – and, yes, there is a lot of chatter linking the veteran pitcher to the Blue Jays.
Neither Braunecker or the Jays would comment, but a source with another major-league team listed Toronto, the Philadelphia Phillies, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates as teams that have talked to Braunecker about the 37-year-old right-hander, who was 10-11 (3.30 earned-run average) with the Pirates in 2013. He had the fourth-highest ground-ball rate among starting pitchers last season, and Blue Jays manager John Gibbons says inducing ground balls is something his staff needs to do more in 2014.
Gibbons mentioned Burnett at Wednesday's state-of-the-franchise gathering attended by close to 900 season-ticket holders, referring to "A.J." before catching correcting himself to say "J.A. Happ." Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, meanwhile, included Burnett in a list of free agents with Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana and Bronson Arroyo.
Burnett suggested at the end of last season he was retiring, but the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported Tuesday he'd changed his mind, provided he could stay in the east. Burnett lives in northern Baltimore County – Monkton, Md., to be exact – and he spoke fondly of his time with the Blue Jays (2006-08) in an interview in Pittsburgh last season.
Adding at least one starting pitcher capable of giving the team close to 200 innings has been the overriding off-season priority for Anthopoulos.
The Jays GM believes there could still be "another layer of trades" after the free agents have gone. He added it wasn't just the drawn-out posting odyssey of Japanese free-agent pitcher Masahiro Tanaka that bogged down a trade market that, at one time, was composed of names such as Homer Bailey and David Price.
"The added playoff component means more teams think they have a chance to contend," Anthopoulos said, referring to baseball's one-game wild-card playoff. "In years past, teams might look at a guy who was a year or two away from free agency and say, 'We'll move him.' There are fewer mid- to front-end starters available.
"Before we did the trade with the Miami Marlins last season, we'd have teams that would just tell us, 'We're not moving that guy,' before we'd had a chance to tell them we'd look at trading anybody. That seems to be the case even more so this season."
Which brings us back to free agents. And Burnett, whose wins above replacement (WAR) was better than Santana or Jimenez, and who has had less mechanical and health issues over the past two seasons than either of them, making 61 starts and totalling 393 1/3 innings, albeit in the National League.
Santana, 31, has totalled 389 innings; the 30-year-old Jimenez has tossed 359 1/3. And unlike the other two, Burnett isn't looking for four years at something approximating $14-million per season – he'll consider one year. And since he flirted with retirement just enough to prevent the Pirates from making a qualifying offer, he won't cost any team a draft choice.
Burnett was a lightning rod during his time here. And while he was more immature and goofy than a clubhouse issue, his decision to exercise an out clause after the third year of his deal – leaving $24-million on the table and signing a five-year, $82.5-million deal with the New York Yankees, the last two of which were spent with the Pirates – symbolizes for many the wayward path the Jays took under Anthopoulos's predecessor, J.P. Ricciardi.
So could this really happen?
Know this: Jays president Paul Beeston used to swear he wouldn't sign a free agent represented by agent Scott Boras. Yet, the Blue Jays have talked to Boras about shortstop Stephen Drew and have been told he'd be open to a move to second base.
This really is an off-season unlike any other. All options are on the table, including ones that were unimaginable months, let alone years, ago.
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