TORONTO -- As anticipated, Blue Jays pitcher A.J. Burnett turned in the appropriate paperwork to officially file for free agency on Wednesday, walking away from the two years he had remaining on his contract.
The five-year, $55 million contract Burnett signed with Toronto prior to the 2006 season included an opt-out clause for this offseason. The fact that the right-hander chose to leave the $24 million he was owed over the next two seasons on the table came as no surprise to the Blue Jays.
"We knew all along that exercising his opt-out was something that he was going to do," Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi said on Tuesday night. "We'll just see how it plays out."
According to Ricciardi, the Blue Jays have yet to present a new offer to Burnett, who could command between $15-18 million annually over a new four- or five-year contract. Toronto has held general discussions with Burnett's representatives, and Ricciardi remains optimistic about the club's chances of retaining the starter.
"If [the Blue Jays] weren't of any type of interest [to Burnett]," Ricciardi said, "I know that they would've told us by now. That's not the case, and I think we'll just keep talking and seeing if we can keep him in Toronto."
Ricciardi reiterated that the Blue Jays probably won't be able to keep Burnett in the fold if the club is forced into a bidding war for his services this offseason. That's precisely what is expected to occur, though, considering the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles already have been rumored to be interested in the right-hander.
Burnett, 31, has a long list of arm issues, but he enjoyed an injury-free campaign in 2008. In a career-high 35 games, Burnett established personal bests last season with 18 wins, 221 1/3 innings and an American League-leading 231 strikeouts. Behind free-agent CC Sabathia, Burnett arguably is the top available arm this offseason.
Without Burnett, Toronto's rotation is thin heading into 2009. Beyond ace Roy Halladay and Jesse Litsch, the Jays have three starting spots up for grabs. Dustin McGowan is expected to be out until at least May after having right shoulder surgery in July, and Shaun Marcum is out until 2010 after having surgery on his right elbow at the end of the season.
Should the Jays fall short in their effort to re-sign Burnett, the club likely will look to the trade market or at the second-tier crop of free-agent starters to add depth. Otherwise, Ricciardi said Toronto is optimistic in its ability to solve the issue internally, relying on some of its younger arms or possibly converting reliever Scott Downs into a starter.
"We're not going to panic," Ricciardi said about potentially losing Burnett. "We're going to adjust."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.