- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Toronto Blue Jays pitcher A.J. Burnett expects to decide whether to exercise the opt-out clause in his contract before the start of the Major League Baseball general managers' meetings Monday in Dana Point, Calif., his agent said Thursday.
While agent Darek Braunecker declined to address his client's specific plans, it appears to be a virtual certainty that Burnett will opt out of his deal with the Blue Jays and hit the open market as a free agent by the end of the weekend.
Burnett has until 15 days after the World Series to make a decision. The pitcher signed a five-year, $55 million contract with Toronto in December 2005, and has two years and $24 million left on the deal.
"For us to participate in the general managers' meetings on behalf of A.J. Burnett, we would have to make a determination [on the opt-out clause] to allow me to do my job," Braunecker said. "That would give us time to gather information from clubs that we believe are truly interested in A.J. and that he would have an interest in playing for."
Burnett, 31, posted an 18-10 record with a 4.07 ERA this season and ranked third in the major leagues in strikeouts behind Tim Lincecum and CC Sabathia. His 34 starts and 221 1/3 innings pitched were both career highs.
If Burnett does, indeed, opt out of his contract, he will rank near the top of one of the deepest free-agent pitching crops in recent years. While Sabathia is the clear headliner, the list of other established starters eligible for free agency includes Derek Lowe, Ryan Dempster, Ben Sheets, Jon Garland, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Randy Johnson, Randy Wolf, Braden Looper, Jamie Moyer, Oliver Perez and Pedro Martinez.
Sheets pitched only 4 1/3 innings after Sept. 11 because of arm problems, Lowe is 35 years old, and Dempster is considered by many as a strong candidate to re-sign with the Cubs, so Burnett could rank second behind Sabathia in the pecking order on several teams' wish lists.
Braunecker, who has had an "ongoing dialogue" with Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi and interim CEO Paul Beeston, said a decision by Burnett to exercise his opt-out clause would not preclude a return to Toronto in 2009. According to reports out of Toronto, the Jays have discussed adding another year or two onto the two years and $24 million they currently owe Burnett.
"By all means, if A.J. does exercise the out, the Blue Jays would be very much in consideration," Braunecker said. "No question about it."
Among the other teams that could be in the mix for Burnett: the Yankees, Mets, Rangers, Red Sox, Orioles and Nationals. Burnett's wife is from Maryland and he makes his offseason home in Baltimore.
While Sabathia is expected to command well in excess of $20 million annually, some industry insiders believe Burnett and Lowe will be seeking at least $16 million a year in long-term contracts based on Jason Schmidt's multiyear deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers two years ago.
Schmidt, who has had a history of arm trouble, signed a three-year, $47 million contract in December 2006. He has spent most of the past two seasons on the disabled list with a shoulder injury and has a 1-4 record in six starts as a Dodger.
Jerry Crasnick covers Major League Baseball for ESPN.com.
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