The Toronto Blue Jays are preparing for life without A.J. Burnett as next week's winter meetings approach, and they'll head to Las Vegas lacking the financial wherewithal to get in on any of the major action.
General manager J.P. Ricciardi admitted in an interview Thursday that "it looks like we're going to lose Burnett," and replacing him with a pitcher of similar capabilities will be virtually impossible given his new payroll restraints.
Should the Blue Jays manage to pull a rabbit from a hat and re-sign their free-agent pitcher - even more unlikely now that the Atlanta Braves confirm they have made him an offer, said by the Atlanta Journal Constitution to be for four years plus an option worth least US$15 million annually - their payroll will remain around the $97 million it was at in 2008.
More likely, once Burnett's departure that has long seemed imminent finally happens, Ricciardi will have in the neighbourhood of $84 million to spend, with $70 million of that already committed to 11 players. Factoring in raises due to other players on the roster, the Blue Jays will be left with little room to manoeuvre once the wheeling and dealing begins in Vegas.
That means a team needing help both offensively and on the mound will only be able to focus on one area, and Ricciardi is clear about which one that will be.
"I think more of the pitching because it looks like we're going to lose Burnett," he said. "We don't know where Burnett is going to go, but we've got to assume Burnett's going to be gone. (Shaun) Marcum is out for the year and (Dustin) McGowan won't be back until May, so to start the season, three-fifths of our starting rotation is out.
"Anybody that can come and help us in that way, would be welcome."
The Blue Jays plan to talk some trade - they tried to deal Alex Rios for Tim Lincecum last year but were rebuffed by the Giants - and they'll scour the free agent market's discount racks looking for reclamation project pitchers. Brad Penny and Carl Pavano, who both worked with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg in Florida, may be of interest.
"I don't really see us being that active unless it's via the trade route right now," said Ricciardi. "I think we'll listen and we'll try to create some things. But really, at the end of the day, I don't see us being that active."
That approach is dramatically different from the plans Ricciardi and his staff initially hatched after their team finished fourth in the AL East at 86-76.
At that time there was talk of a possible slight payroll increase and of pursuing free agents to upgrade the club. There were whispers of runs at Jason Giambi, Rafael Furcal and maybe even Derek Lowe if Burnett couldn't be re-signed.
Then the financial crisis hit and those plans disappeared as quickly as markets tumbled. The loonie sank, team sponsorships dropped and no one can be certain of what's going to happen long-term. So the Blue Jays are pulling back, unwilling to make extended commitments in such unstable economic times.
"For us to get in with any type of contract or any type of dealings that may really handcuff us financially going forward, wouldn't be the prudent thing for us to do," said Ricciardi.
That being said, the Blue Jays aren't planning to jettison players for cost-cutting purposes, and would welcome Burnett back on their terms. That, of course, isn't likely to happen as the pitcher didn't opt out of the final $24 million and two years left on his deal for a nominal raise.
He's looking to cash in after posting career-highs in wins (18), innings pitched (221 1-3) and strikeouts (231) and it seems like some team is going to make it happen for him.
If he does indeed leave, the Blue Jays will be left with ace Roy Halladay, Jesse Litsch and David Purcey in their starting rotation.
Casey Janssen is throwing and will come to camp with a chance to start, although the team's thinking on whether or not he's a better fit in the bullpen remains split. McGowan, who like Janssen is coming off shoulder surgery, won't be back until May at the earliest but will give the staff a legitimate No. 2 when he returns.
Regardless of how the rotation shakes out, the Blue Jays will clearly be leaning more on their bullpen and offence next season and while the relievers offer a steady leg to stand on, the hitters are somewhat of a question mark.
A lineup that too often lacked punch in 2008 will need Vernon Wells to remain healthy, Lyle Overbay and Scott Rolen to consistently regain their strokes, Alex Rios to max out his ample potential, plus get continued progress from Adam Lind and Travis Snider in order to help shoulder the burden.
"We just want guys to be the players we know they're capable of being and that they've done in the past," said Ricciardi. "I don't think it's any more pressure. These guys are capable of doing very good things and that's why we have them here."