Jays land Burnett with five-year, $55M deal

Updated: December 7, 2005, 7:13 PM ET
Associated Press

DALLAS -- The Toronto Blue Jays kept up their spending spree on Tuesday by agreeing to terms with starter A.J. Burnett on a $55 million, five-year contract.

A.J. Burnett
Kevin C. Cox/WireImage.comAfter courting A.J. Burnett for a month, the Blue Jays landed their man.
The deal was announced at baseball's winter meetings just hours after the team gave general manager J.P. Ricciardi a three-year contract extension to keep him in Toronto through 2010.

"He's got one of the best arms in baseball," Toronto manager John Gibbons said. "On any given night, he can shut out. I just think he'll fit in perfect."

It was the second major free agent signing this offseason for Ricciardi, who gave closer B.J. Ryan a $47 million, five-year deal last week that is the richest ever for a reliever.

"One thing about the free-agent game is if you're going to get in it, you can't get in it halfway," Ricciardi said. "Either you're going to be a player or you're not."

The Burnett deal is the longest contract for a free-agent starter since Chan Ho Park's five-year, $65 million contract with the Texas Rangers in December 2001.

A 28-year-old right-hander with a 98 mph fastball and a no-hitter on his resume, Burnett was also coveted by the St. Louis Cardinals; they would only offer four years.

Burnett is 49-50 in his career, all with Florida. He had reconstructive elbow surgery and missed almost all of the 2003 season, then went 12-12 with a 3.44 ERA last year before being banished from the team in the final week after criticizing manager Jack McKeon and his coaching staff.

"Sometimes there's personality conflicts," Gibbons said. "He was frustrated. Things were said he probably regrets."

Burnett said little about his departure from Florida, which has shipped out most of its best players in a salary purge. Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and Guillermo Mota went to Boston; Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca went to the New York Mets and Luis Castillo went to Minnesota.

"I'm glad I'm not down there any more. Fire sales are always tough," Burnett said. "They'd better teach Dontrelle [Willis] how to play all nine positions."

Although most teams have gone away from five-year deals, especially for pitchers, Ricciardi said he was willing to make a long-term commitment because Ryan and Burnett are still in their 20s.

"We think we've done our homework," Ricciardi said. "We looked at [Burnett's] age, being so young. I don't think we'd get involved with someone even in his mid-30s."

Burnett got a $6 million signing bonus and a salary of $1 million for 2006 before his pay jumps to $12 million through each of the last four years of the deal. He has a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block a deal to 15 teams.

The Blue Jays are planning to increase their payroll from $45 million to $75 million in an effort to improve a team that went 80-82 last year and finished third in the AL East behind the big-payroll New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

"This is the reward for us running a good business," Ricciardi said. "Five years ago, we were trying to get rid of contracts. Now, if you look at our club, we have very few diminishing returns."

Burnett liked what he saw.

"They've got parts of the puzzle. I'm just glad I fit in it," he said. "Sooner, rather than later, we're going to see a new team on top there."

Burnett said he looked forward to playing with Roy Halladay, the 2003 AL Cy Young winner. Gibbons said that Halladay, who suffered a season-ending leg injury on July 8, was still the ace of the Blue Jays staff.

"It's still Halladay's team. He's still the main guy. He's earned that. He's a fixture in Toronto," the manager said, adding that the top of Toronto's rotation compared with New York's Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina and Boston's Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett.

"Can't argue those two," Gibbons said. "But I think we stack right up there with those guys."

Toronto agreed to a one-year contract with outfielder Reed Johnson worth $1,425,000. Johnson, eligible for salary arbitration for the first time, made $342,000 last season, when he hit .269 with eight homers and 58 RBI.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press