ITD Editorial – Burnett Options

Inside The Dome presents this new feature that will give its writers a chance to share their opinions on Blue Jays-related news, from the lower levels of the minor leagues to the financial dealing of the major league club. No subjects are out of reach for the authority on Blue Jays news and analysis.

The A.J. Burnett signing prior to the 2006 season was significant for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it gave a one-two punch to the rotation when you consider Roy Halladay was the ace of the staff. By acquiring his services, the Blue Jays could instantly boast to be contenders in the tough American League East division.

But what Burnett gave to the franchise at that time was important leverage when courting high profile free agents or during trade talks for all-stars players. It was a sign that the Canadian club could attract great players and even sign them to long-term contracts. Troy Glaus even waived his no-trade clause that included Toronto when came time to complete the move that sent our beloved Orlando Hudson to the Arizona desert.

When word spilled that a great offer from a major league team could potentially make Burnett, who has the ability to shut down opposing batters when healthy, leave the Blue Jays, we have to examine the consequences such a departure would cause our club.

Many critics of the deal at the time complained about the tag price attached to the player in question, his .500 career record and his durability.

First of all, that contract is quite simply a steal by today's standards. If Barry Zito carries a $126 million price for seven years, all logic is out the door and the sky is the limit when the time comes to sign one of the best pitcher in the majors today, A.J. Burnett.

Secondly, when you rely on the win-loss record to judge a pitcher, you know it's time to have a change of the guard in the new media landscape.

Finally, where the critics had a valid argument was the chance he might breakdown. The following two seasons proved them right, up to a point: Burnett made twenty-one starts (135 IP) in 2006 (3.98 ERA, 1.30 WHIP) and twenty-five outings (165 IP) in 2007 (3.75 ERA, 1.19 WHIP). Last season saw him record more strike outs (176) than innings pitched (165 2/3), the first time he accomplished that feat since 1998, when he was with the Kane County Cougars, a Florida Marlins affiliate at the time (now a minor league partner with the Oakland Athletics).

The contract included an opt-clause that was valid after his third season with the club (end of 2008), a development that was widely criticized at the time.

"They asked for the clause, and when you're trying to get a free agent to come to Toronto, you have to be as open-minded as possible," J.P. Ricciardi, the Jays General Manager recently said.

Exactly.

Love it or hate it, that was probably necessary (along with the eight round-trip limousine trips per season between Toronto & Burnett's Maryland home for his wife). Now, the Blue Jays have to deal with it. So what do they do?

Three clear choices are in front of them:

• Trade – that could happen this off-season or before the 2008 trading deadline if the Blue Jays are not in contention and/or are offered a deal they simply can't reject.

• They lose him to free agency after he opts out at the end of next season and gladly take the two additional draft picks, given to a team when a top free-agent (either a Type A or B) is signed by another team.

• We keep him and renegotiate his contract during or after the next campaign.

The first question we have to ask ourselves: can we replace him? The answer, yes.

As good as he is, the arm problems can't be brushed aside. The Blue Jays have to plan for a few outings where a call-up will be necessary or a bullpen member will have to step up. The way the rotation is set now (Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett, Dustin McGowan, Shawn Marcum and a battle between Jesse Litsch, Josh Banks, Gustavo Chacin and Joe Kennedy), we could very well be able to replace him, but not match his performances.

McGowan figures to be a very good number two starter, so that's a comparable replacement right there. Marcum, with his dominating, but not over-powering repertoire, will be a perfect number three starter for the long term and the two remaining spots can be filled with Litsch and a free-agent that could be a rehabbing project like Matt Clement (who could attract a low salary, but filled with incentives for good performances and also had pitching coach Brad Arnsberg as a mentor earlier in his career and might want to be reunited to come back strong), Gustavo Chacin (who seems to have worked out his shoulder problems following a surgery and needs to use his cutter more to set up away and off-speed offerings) and Josh Banks (a pitcher that NEEDS to keep the ball down to be effective. He is a potential sleeper in that rotation).

Would the Jays welcome an electric arm like Burnett offers? Absolutely. Could they do without and still remain competitive, especially with their explosive offense and great bullpen arms? No doubt about it.

The remaining options that call for him to stay are a bunch of what ‘ifs'….

• ...what if Toronto gets two good players out of the draft with the picks he gives the club when signing with another team for the 2009 season? That's something that's in the hands of the front office personnel. How much are they willing to invest on a high-ceiling first round pick? When can he help them at the major league level?

• …what if they get some great return in a trade? I know. That's really something fans can look forward if a deal takes place. We are talking about an impact player (Lastings Milledge for Burnett, straight up? Any takers?) or a combination of young prospects the talented development personnel would be responsible to bring up the system and mold them the Blue Jays way.

• …what if his arm troubles are behind him and Toronto can get him to be part of a formidable 1-2-3 punch in the starting rotation? The Jays already paid him $12 million a year until the contract is up. Could they afford to pay $5-7 millions more and keep the guy? Why not. With the Koskie and Hinske contributions off the books, the Glaus contract potentially gone and a the savings we make with Marcum and Litsch until they reach arbitration and the subsequent free-agent phase, the club would either recoup the money necessary or a sales-pitch could be presented to Mr. Rogers to keep the 30-year-old.

With Burnett and their starting rotation suddenly the envy of many clubs, the Toronto Blue Jays find themselves in an enviable place where the options are very bright no matter where you look. Even Ricciardi sounded optimistic if the ‘worst' scenario were to happen.

"If we walk away with two draft picks, we can live with that," Ricciardi said. "You can turn some of the draft picks into things that turn around real quick, too. I think we have enough arms coming behind [Burnett] that we can absorb a little bit of a loss."

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