Burnett plans to opt out of Jays deal
Jays right-hander to give up two years, $24 million remaining
TORONTO -- There's a new arm on the open market. On Tuesday, the Blue Jays learned that A.J. Burnett intends to opt out of his current contract, adding another top-tier free agent to the deep pool of available pitchers.
Darek Braunecker, Burnett's agent, met with members of Toronto's front office during the General Managers Meetings on Tuesday in Dana Point, Calif., and informed the club of his client's decision. By opting out, Burnett is leaving the $24 million he was owed over the next two seasons on the table.
Braunecker described the decision as "a formality," and Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi indicated that Toronto assumed all along that Burnett would test free agency this winter. Even so, Ricciardi insisted that the Jays plan on making a strong push to re-sign Burnett, but reiterated that the team probably won't win a bidding war.
"If the absolute last dollar is the most important thing," Ricciardi said, "then we're probably not going to be the team for most people."
The Blue Jays still have exclusive negotiating rights with Burnett until Nov. 14, when other clubs can begin approaching the pitcher with contract offers. Ricciardi and Blue Jays interim president and CEO Paul Beeston have both held general discussions with Burnett's representatives, but the club has yet to table an offer of its own.
Ricciardi said the discussions up to this point have focused on aspects of Toronto that appeal to Burnett. The pitcher has had a long working relationship with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, who signed a two-year extension at the end of this past season, and the righty is the No. 2 starter behind ace Roy Halladay on a strong American League staff.
Burnett also enjoys working with the Jays' training staff, which helped the right-hander enjoy only the second injury-free campaign of his 10-year career in 2008. Ricciardi said these have been some of the issues brought up in the discussions, stressing that dollar figures or length of contract haven't been talked about.
"At this point, there's really no need for us to make an offer," Ricciardi said. "The No. 1 thing for us was to make sure that he wanted to stay in Toronto. ... I know that he likes it in Toronto. Now, does that mean he's ultimately going to stay in Toronto? No.
"But, if we weren't of any type of interest, I know that they would've told us by now. That's not the case, and I think we'll just keep talking and seeing if we can keep him in Toronto."
The chances of Burnett returning to the Jays appear to be slim, considering what he could potentially command on the open market. Burnett immediately becomes arguably the top available starter behind free agent CC Sabathia in a field that also includes Ben Sheets, Derek Lowe and Ryan Dempster, among others.
The Yankees and Orioles are rumored to be among teams with interest in Burnett, who would prefer to stay on the East Coast and makes his offseason home outside of Baltimore. Burnett could potentially reel in a four- or five-year contract worth between $15-18 million annually, which could quickly take the Jays out of the running.
While convincing Burnett not to opt out would've undoubtedly helped Toronto's chances of re-signing him, Ricciardi said that wasn't necessarily a priority for the club.
"I don't think that was our goal," Ricciardi said. "We wanted to make sure that he wanted to stay, and, with that being said, we knew all along that exercising his opt-out was something that he was going to do. We'll just see how it plays out."
Burnett originally signed a five-year contract worth $55 million with the Blue Jays prior to the 2006 season, and he was scheduled to earn $12 million in each of the next two seasons. Multiple reports have indicated that Toronto is prepared to offer Burnett an extension through 2012 worth $15 million in each of the 2011 and '12 seasons.
With other offseason goals to tackle, including the search for a power bat, it's not clear how much the Blue Jays would be able to afford beyond that. Making matters worse for Toronto has been the recent decline of the Canadian dollar -- possibly hindering how much the team can spend this winter.
"We've got certain resources that we have to abide by," said Ricciardi, who added that he believed the Jays and Burnett would reach some sort of decision before the Winter Meetings on Dec. 8-11 in Las Vegas.
Following a pair of injury-riddled seasons with the Blue Jays, Burnett pieced together the strongest showing of his career in 2008. Burnett established new career highs with 18 wins, 34 starts, 221 1/3 innings and an American League-leading 231 strikeouts. Burnett avoided the disabled list after being shelved twice in each of the previous two seasons.
Should the Blue Jays fall short in their attempt to re-sign Burnett, the club will likely look to the second-tier crop of free-agent arms for a replacement. Ricciardi has also indicated that Toronto will see what might be available via trade, and the team will also consider looking internally to fill the rotation.
"We've got some really good young pitchers coming," Ricciardi said. "We've got some guys within our staff that are really good and we might be able to convert to starters. We're not going to panic. We're going to adjust."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.