Should Orioles home in on Burnett?

July 13, 2008|By DAN CONNOLLY

Here's an idea for the 2009 Orioles and beyond.

It's one you heard back in 2005 - in both July and November.

It's time to float it again

A.J. Burnett coming home as a member of the Orioles' rotation.

Could it happen? Sure.

Will it happen? Most likely not.

Should it happen?

The jury is definitely out on that one.

It depends whether you like to roll the dice, whether you'd rather gamble on stunning talent than boring mediocrity. It matters whether you could stomach another, slightly shorter, version of Daniel Cabrera, dominating one start, imploding the next. Hoping and praying the light can stay on for an extended period of time.

Burnett, the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander who lives in Monkton in the offseason, signed a five-year, $55 million deal with the Blue Jays in December 2005. He can opt out of it at the end of this season, and the speculation is he will.

That's why it's quite possible the Jays will trade him this month, with likely suitors including the Philadelphia Phillies and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Orioles won't be in those discussions - they shouldn't give up any young talent for a would-be free agent. Club president Andy MacPhail knows better.

But what if Burnett does enter free agency in 2008?

At 31, he's a veteran with plenty of upside and, when healthy, could eat innings - something the Orioles desperately need.

Sure, there will be better pitching options available this winter, such as CC Sabathia. But Sabathia isn't coming here unless the Orioles grossly overpay, and even then, likely not. The reality is the Orioles have made progress, but they still have a long way to go to attract top free agents.

In Burnett's case, the Orioles have selling points no one else can offer: A stadium less than a half-hour's drive from his house. A team in his wife's home state and a chance to spend more time with his two young boys (ages 7 and 4). Hard to imagine what that's worth. But it is worth something.

When asked whether playing for the Orioles intrigued him, Burnett said he is a Blue Jay, wants to stay a Blue Jay and "I am keeping my focus where it is right now."

But, he added, "At some point down the road, maybe. I don't know. I don't want to put my foot in my mouth. It's all out of my hands, but I do live there, so it would be a plus."

Burnett's stuff is among the best in the AL, but he hasn't excelled in his 10-season career - posting a 78-74 record with a 3.90 career ERA. He has had double-digit wins five times but never more than 12 in a season. Because of myriad injuries, he has made 30-plus starts in a season just once.

This year, he is 9-8 with a frustrating 5.23 ERA in 20 games.

"I am healthy, so that is one thing I am taking from it," he said last week. "I've somehow pulled off nine wins. I think I have pitched better than a lot of my numbers, but I have given up my share of cough-ups."

Wednesday against the Orioles was a microcosm of Burnett's season. He was unhittable early, retiring the first 10 batters he faced. But in the sixth, with an 8-1 lead, he gave up six runs and turned a no-brainer into a nail-biter.

Dominating or inconsistent, Burnett will find work somewhere, and he won't come cheaply. If he opts out, he'll be leaving $24 million on the table. So he'd have to think he'd be getting a better deal elsewhere. Given that the mediocre Carlos Silva received a four-year, $48 million contract from the Seattle Mariners last offseason, that's probably a safe bet.

A high price tag would put him out of the Orioles' reach because MacPhail doesn't like paying big money for free-agent starters and owner Peter Angelos is wary of giving long-term deals to any pitcher.

In July 2005, the Orioles were close to a trade that would have landed Burnett and third baseman Mike Lowell from the Florida Marlins for reliever Jorge Julio, outfielder Larry Bigbie and pitching prospect Hayden Penn.

It fell through because the Orioles wanted the Marlins to pay at least $10 million remaining on Lowell's contract, and because they didn't think they could re-sign Burnett to a reasonable extension. At the time, Angelos also was concerned about giving up Penn for what likely would have been a rental pitcher.

So they passed and waited for the offseason. When Burnett became available as a free agent, however, the Orioles just kicked the tires. They showed interest but never made a formal offer, which is fine, in retrospect, because they were never going to dangle $55 million anyway.

Three years later, Burnett could be a free agent again.

He has his warts. He also has a blessed right arm.

And though he might not be the best starting option on the free-agent market in the next few years, don't be so quick to dismiss him. He's probably the best pitcher available with a genuine interest in Baltimore.

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