With the Toronto Blue Jays looking at the possibility of losing starting pitcher A.J. Burnett to an opt-out clause in his contract next winter, general manager J.P. Ricciardi told ESPN.com that the team is willing to entertain trade proposals from interested clubs this offseason.
"We like having A.J. here," Ricciardi said at the general managers' meetings in Florida. "He gives us a good opportunity to win in 2008, and that's our main objective right now.
"But we're open-minded," he continued. "If someone blew us away, we'd be foolish not to listen. If someone came to us tomorrow and said, 'We'll give you this, this and this for him,' we'd be foolish not to look at it."
Burnett, 30, signed a five-year, $55 million contract with Toronto as a free agent in December 2005, but the deal included an opt-out clause after the third year. He's scheduled to earn $12 million in each of the 2008, 2009 and 2010 seasons.
Burnett is the latest player whose long-term status with a club could be affected by an opt-out provision. Last year J.D. Drew left in the middle of a multi-year deal with the Dodgers and parlayed it into a five-year, $70 million contract with Boston. During the final game of the World Series, Alex Rodriguez informed the New York Yankees that he would be exercising his opt-out clause and declaring free agency.
Durability has been an ongoing concern for Burnett, who's made a total of 46 starts over the past two seasons. But when he's pitched, he's been effective. Burnett has 294 strikeouts in 300 1/3 innings with the Blue Jays, and American League hitters batted .214 against him in 2007.
While Minnesota's Johan Santana and Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia are marquee names who could headline the free-agent market next winter, Burnett might still benefit from opting out of his deal with Toronto. He would be hitting the free-agent market at age 31 rather than 33, at a time when clubs have a lot of money to spend. He's also shown he can be successful pitching against challenging lineups in the AL East.
Although Burnett's performance in 2008 will have a major impact on his choice to leave or remain with the Blue Jays, agent Darek Braunecker acknowledged that he will be monitoring salaries in this winter's free-agent market. The economic climate is certain to play a role in Burnett's decision.
"There are a lot of moving parts," Braunecker said. "It's a fluid situation, but we have the provision in the contract for a reason. That's why we implemented it, and we're going to be able to utilize it if we choose to."
When Burnett left Florida through free agency two years ago, he expressed a desire to pitch close to his home in Baltimore. Interestingly enough, Toronto has had a void at shortstop, and Miguel Tejada -- who has also been the focus of trade speculation -- has two years and $26 million left on his deal with the Orioles.
The St. Louis Cardinals made a serious run at Burnett two years ago. And the Philadelphia Phillies, desperate for pitching help, are another potential suitor.
Burnett has a limited no-trade clause that allows him to refuse a deal to 15 designated teams. While the opt-out clause is sure to be a concern for his next club, it might also be a negotiating chip for Burnett. If he's willing to drop it, it might allow his agents to push for an extra year or two in his next destination.
Ricciardi stressed that he has no problem with keeping Burnett for three more seasons or hanging onto him in 2008 and risk losing him to free agency next winter.
"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."
Toronto's inventory could help cushion the blow of an early departure by Burnett. Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum and former bat boy Jesse Litsch, who followed Roy Halladay and Burnett in the rotation last season, combined to win 31 games. And Toronto has two recent high draft picks, David Purcey and Brett Cecil, working their way through the system.
Even if Burnett walks next winter or the Jays decide to deal him, Ricciardi said he has no regrets about including the opt-out provision in the contract.
"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," Ricciardi said. "We figured three years of A.J. was better than no years."
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com.