Blue Jays notebook: Making the case for Burnett

A.J. Burnett. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Throughout the off-season, I’ll provide commentary and links related to the Toronto Blue Jays and MLB every weekend.

In many ways, it’s hard to envision A.J. Burnett returning to the Toronto Blue Jays. In other ways he’d be an excellent fit.

Let’s start with the necessary caveats. Burnett, a free agent who recently decided to pitch in 2014, lives in Maryland and his wife doesn’t like flying. He previously stated that he’d want to pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates if he keeps playing. There’s no indication that the Blue Jays are serious about rekindling a relationship that ended five years ago when the right-hander opted out of a contract that frustrated many Blue Jays fans from the beginning.

But Burnett has advantages over other free agent starters. He’s not linked to draft pick compensation and won’t be seeking a long-term deal at age 37. This gives him an edge over fellow free agents Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana. He’s a ground ball pitcher who limits home runs well enough to succeed in a homer-friendly park like Rogers Centre, which gives him an edge over Santana and Bronson Arroyo. He has had success in the AL East, while Jimenez and Santana have yet to be tested within the division.

When Alex Anthopoulos listed free agent starting options at the Blue Jays’ State of the Franchise event Wednesday, he mentioned the former Blue Jays starter.

“I think we all know the names. Arroyo, Burnett, Santana, Jimenez,” Anthopoulos said. “Those guys are all still out there. They all can help our ballclub, can all be a significant improvement.”

Burnett would be a major upgrade for most teams, including the Blue Jays, if he sustains his recent production. In fact, it’s easy to make the case that Burnett has out-pitched the other top free agents. In 2013, he led Jimenez, Santana and Arroyo in categories such as wins above replacement (4.0), strikeout rate (9.9 K/9), ground ball rate (56.5%) and — even at age 36 — average fastball velocity (92.5 m.p.h.). Over the course of the last three seasons, Burnett leads the group in wins above replacement, strikeout rate, ground ball rate and home run rate.

While Burnett struggled with walks earlier in his career, he has reduced his walk rate in recent years to the 3.0 BB/9 range. Since leaving the Blue Jays, he has managed to boost his ground ball rate and maintain his strikeout rate.

He has also been durable. While he was limited to 46 total starts in his first two seasons with Toronto, he has made at least 30 starts in each of the last six seasons and has averaged 29 starts per season over the course of the last decade.

Will it add up to a reunion? It seems doubtful for the reasons listed above.  Instead, Burnett will likely find another home for 2014 as the Blue Jays continue exploring the pitching market for that elusive upgrade.

“The rotation is still an area we’d like to add,” Anthopoulos said. “We’ll see if it’s one of these free agents. We are talking to a club or two about some trades, and we’ll see where those discussions lead, but we are very active and very involved in trying to bring in at least one more starter.”

TRADE TALK: Shi Davidi reported Wednesday that the Blue Jays pursued a trade for Ian Kinsler before having the talks fall apart. So how did the discussions unfold and who would have gone the other way?

Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that the Blue Jays pursued Kinsler then stopped when they learned they were on his no-trade list. The Rangers targeted Edwin Encarnacion, but the Blue Jays would not move him, Rosenthal reports. Sergio Santos and Ricky Romero did surface in trade talks, though the duo would not have been enough to pry Kinsler away from Texas.

WOULD JAYS COPY GARZA OPTION?: Anthopoulos said the Blue Jays would be open to getting creative with options such as those in the contracts of pitchers John Lackey and Matt Garza. The contracts include vesting options at low salaries that protect teams from injuries. In the end, however, the Blue Jays prefer to pursue pitchers whose health isn’t a major question.

“I don’t know that it makes sense for us to go out and acquire a player that we have initial concerns on from a medical standpoint, and we just don’t know when that issue might arise,” the GM said. “That’s a hard way to plan. So most players we’d try to acquire or sign, there may be some concerns, but overall we’d feel better about the health and not need to put in that type of language.”

FARM SYSTEM RANKINGS: The Blue Jays have a bottom-ten farm system in the view of ESPN’s Keith Law. The former Toronto executive ranked the Blue Jays 24th among the 30 MLB teams, reasoning that the Blue Jays compromised their system by trading impact prospects and failing to sign top draft picks.

The Blue Jays traded prospects Noah Syndergaard, Travis D’Arnaud and Justin Nicolino last winter to obtain the likes of R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes, and the club did not agree to terms with 2013 first round selection Phil Bickford or 2011 first round selection Tyler Beede.

NOTES: Brett Lawrie is taking 88 m.p.h. ground balls… Some of the high schoolers who declined to sign with the Blue Jays in 2011 were recognized on Baseball America’s list of top college draft prospects, including Beede… Stephen Drew is an interesting option for second base, though there are many reasons to believe it’d be tough to complete a deal.

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