Toronto Baseball Guys
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
  Three to Deal at the Deadline
With the non-waiver trade deadline less than two weeks away, and the Blue Jays not in any position to contend, it's time to see what parts of the roster can be flipped to benefit the club in 2009 and beyond. Don't expect any huge moves, since most of the team's key players are signed to long term deals. Plus, there is some value in pursuing an 85-win season, which the team is perfectly capable of. So this isn't the time to blow things up. There are, however, some spare parts that could be dealt to a needy contender.

David Eckstein
Largely ignored since Cito Gaston returned as manager, Eckstein doesn't offer any skills that aren't already provided by the Inglett/MacDonald/Scutaro triumvirate. Unless, of course, you count "playoff scrapiness." Signed to a one-year deal, there's no chance that Eckstein will be be back in '09, and there's a perfect fit out there for him.

While most playoff contenders are set at shortstop, the Tampa Bay Rays are using Ben Zobrist, while waiting for Jason Bartlett to come off the DL. Eckstein has outhit Bartlett by a healthy margin this season, and with his two rings and a World Series MVP, he fills Tampa's playoff experience void that someone in Florida is sure to start fretting about any second now.

Expect a modest return for Eckstein, but a team awash in young players and on the cusp of the playoffs for the first time ever just might overpay.

Rod Barajas
Another player on a one-year deal, Barajas has been solid with the bat this season, hitting .256 with 8 homers - worthy numbers for any backup catcher. So long as we're dealing within the division, the Yankees - who have just placed Jorge Posada back on the DL - have a gaping wound at the position, and will go with Jose Molina for the forseeable future.

A.J. Burnett
This is a tricky one. Six weeks ago, it looked like a natural move, with the Jays boasting the best young starters in the league in Marcum, McGowan and Litsch. Since then, the young pitchers fulfilled the two "I"s of young pitchers: Injuries and Inconsistency. Marcum has missed a month with soreness in his forearm, while Jesse Litsch has been just a little too reminiscent of Josh Towers recently. The biggest concern is McGowan, who is shut down for at least a month with a tear in his rotator cuff. I can't recall hearing the words "tear" and "rotator cuff" without the word "surgery," so it wouldn't be at all surprising if McGowan is lost for the season or longer.

Suddenly, Burnett, who looked rather expendable, might be worth keeping around a little longer.

Any discussion of Burnett begins with his contract, the most debated, defended, reviled contract in club history and the move for which J.P. Ricciardi will likely be most remembered. A.J. Burnett: 5 years/$55 million.

So let's start by saying this: It's not a bad contract (In case you just spat coffee all over your keyboard and monitor, go grab a shammy or some paper towel - we'll wait).

Is it a pricey contract? Sure. Was it risky? You bet. But a bad one? No, THESE are bad contracts:


W L GS IP ERA
Mike Hampton (8 years/$121M) 53 48 134 813.1 4.80
Denny Neagle (5 years/$51M) 19 23 65 370.1 5.57
Jaret Wright (3 years/$21M) 16 15 43 214.1 5.08
Carl Pavano (4 years/$40M) 5 6 19 111.1 4.77
Darren Dreifort (5 years/$55M) 9 15 26 205.2 4.64
Mike Sirotka (2 years/$6.8M 0 0 0 0 NA

(Dreifort also pitched 60 games in relief)


The Blue Jays, meanwhile, have gotten value out of A.J. Burnett. Has it been optimal value? Visions of 230 inning seasons and Cy Young contention haven't panned out, but Burnett - for all of his ups and downs - has been an above average starter.


W L GS IP ERA
Burnett 30 25 67 435.1 4.16


The key with Burnett's contract is that he can opt out and become a free agent after this season. So any team that trades for him assumes that risk. If he pitches a contender into the playoffs, he can walk away after three months for greener pastures. If he trips over the rosin bag and sidelines himself in his first start, then his new team is on the hook for the final 2 years and $24 million of his deal. That could slow down a potential bidding war, but a market for Burnett may heat up closer to the August 31st deadline, as teams get more desperate. Burnett would be a good bet to clear waivers with his contract.

Ultimately, the Jays don't have to panic with Burnett. If he stays and opts out, which is likely, they can spend the $12 million elsewhere. If he doesn't opt out, he continues to fill a hole in the rotation, which could be important based on the health of McGowan. Sure, there are better ways to spend $12 million, but there are far worse onces, too. Carlos Silva, anyone? Besides, Burnett has been a fairly durable starter since Ricciardi offered his "suck it up and pitch A.J." speech.

With no urgency to deal Burnett, the Jays can sit back and see what offers roll in. For an above average starter, who happens to lead the league in strikeouts, the target should be nothing short of a Jeff Kent-type deal. No, that doesn't mean we're scouring for surly highway-patrol lookalike second baseman, but rather a top young prospect who happens to be blocked in his current organization. Think a shortstop with the Yankees, or a Mets third baseman.

It was Kent, trapped behind Robbie Alomar, that the Jays parlayed into David Cone. That kind of return would make even the most ardent Burnett critics ask "what contract?"
 
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