By: Nick Ashbourne
Canadian Baseball Network
It was exactly 10 years to the day on Sunday that the Toronto Blue Jays signed a starting pitcher by the name of Allan James Burnett. Depending on your own personal perception of time it might seem like it was longer ago than that or just yesterday, but to me that sounds about right.
Given that a decade has passed, it feels appropriate to take a look at one of the more controversial players to don a Blue Jays jersey in recent memory. Burnett is widely disliked and seen by many north of the border as an overpaid turncoat, but is it a fair characterization?
It is true that he set himself up to be seen that way. Burnett never tried very hard to be liked and was a notoriously prickly character. His willingness to pitch through pain and commitment to the Blue Jays was questioned during his tenure in Toronto and he never seemed keen to be there.
However, there are a lot of vagaries there that those outside the Blue Jays clubhouse will never know and none of the allegations are serious anyway. If anything, questions about Burnett's character simply established a baseline of him not getting the benefit of the doubt. He made it easy to dislike him.
Most of Burnett's perceived villainy comes from the contract he signed. When he first came to the Blue Jays his five-year $55 million contract was considered to an overpay by many for a pitcher was talented but injury-prone and had never accumulated a high win total in his years with the then-Florida Marlins. Before he ever threw a pitch for the Blue Jays, fans already had issues with his salary.
What they failed to realize is that their ire should have been directed exclusively in the direction of J.P. Ricciardi if they disagreed with the contract. Burnett simply signed a piece of paper that enabled him to make as much money as possible. This is a rational act for a human being not a malicious one.
Burnett didn't help his case by missing significant time in his first two years, before putting together an excellent 2008 where he led the American League in strikeouts and showed himself to be the perfect complement to Roy Halladay the Blue Jays always imagined he'd be. It was at this point that he committed a crime for which he was never forgiven in Toronto: opting out of his contract.
Blue Jays fans reacted as if this was an act of the purest treachery, but realistically Burnett was simply seeking to maximize his income. At that point he had two years and $22 million guaranteed if he stayed with the Blue Jays. By opting out he secured a deal worth $82.5 million over five years. The decision to leave Toronto netted Burnett more than $60 million in additional wealth and security for him and his family. Burnett didn't breach his contract, he exercised his rights within it. Virtually anyone would do the same. Not many people walk away from the opportunity to make an extra $60 million dollars.
It's worth noting that during his three years with the Blue Jays Burnett actually performed better than most remember. Between 2006-2008 he ranked 24th among major-league starters with 10.3 Wins Above Replacement. He was also one of only five pitchers to strike out more than one batter per inning, one of only 14 to have a ground ball rate above 50 percent and the only one to do both. According to FanGraphs estimates his production was actually worth $58.2 million during his Blue Jays tenure.
So, Burnett landed in Toronto because he was looking for the best contract he could get then he was very productive and left for the next best offer. None of this behavior is surprising and it certainly isn't nefarious.
Moreover, the story of what the right-hander contributed to the Blue Jays doesn't end there. His return to Toronto on May 12 2009 with the New York Yankees was one of the signature games of the the decade for the Blue Jays. Rogers Centre was packed and a city that hadn't seen playoff baseball in 17 years created a post-season atmosphere to see Roy Halladay go up against Burnett in what was billed as the ultimate good vs. evil matchup.
At the time the Yankees were scuffling with a 15-16 record whereas the Blue Jays had rocketed out to a 22-12 mark. It was the perfect opportunity for the Blue Jays to show they didn't need Burnett and that's exactly what they did. Halladay was at his best throwing a complete game giving up only a single run while the Blue Jays got five off Burnett punctuated by an eighth-inning home run off the bat of Aaron Hill.
The Yankees had the last laugh as they went on to win the World Series as the Blue Jays missed the playoffs again, but at the time it was a moment of pure elation the likes of which the franchise hadn't seen in years. In his time in New York the Blue Jays often got the better of Burnett who went 3-5 with a 5.94 ERA against, bringing further joy to his former fans in Canada.
Burnett's final contribution to the Blue Jays was both tangential and significant. As a result of losing their No. 2 starter the team was awarded the 37th pick in the 2009 draft which they used on promising Canadian southpaw James Paxton. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays they were unable to come to terms with the now-Seattle Mariners hurler.
Failing to sign Paxton earned them another pick, this time 38th overall in the 2010 draft. They used that one on Noah Syndergaard. If this was a story with a happy ending the Blue Jays would now be able to thank Burnett for their emerging ace. Since this is a story about A.J. Burnett it's a bit more complicated.
Instead the Blue Jays have Burnett's departure prior to the 2009 season to thank for about half of R.A. Dickey's 654.2 and counting solid if below-expectations innings since 2013. The last thing Burnett's already muddy legacy needs is another muddy legacy tied to its ankles, but it does feel appropriate in its own way.
Burnett is a player who is doomed to be associated with greed and treachery even though he acted in a way that was not atypical. The finest Blue Jays moment he was involved with was him getting beaten by the team in his return to Rogers Centre. That's not a good foundation upon which to be adored.
However, Burnett did his job and did it well and he probably didn't deserve the disdain heaped upon him by Blue Jays fans. On the other hand if he hadn't been cast as a villain, he would not have had the same impact on the team's history.
Misguided or not, hatred for Burnett will keep his memory alive in Toronto for decades to come. Perhaps there's some solace in that. After all, as Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "There is only one thing in the word worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."