Some players earn their big contracts. They have big years, win awards, win big games, show grace under pressure.
Others benefit from circumstances -- good timing -- as well as talent. And circumstances could not have been better for A.J. Burnett, a right-handed pitcher of immense talent that has yet to be realized consistently in the major leagues.
Burnett, who will be 29 on opening day next season, signed a guaranteed five-year contract worth $55-million (U.S.) with the Toronto Blue Jays yesterday, even though he has never won more than 12 games in a season and had a 49-50 career record and a 3.73 earned-run average with the Florida Marlins.
And with his team battling for a playoff spot last season, he lost his final six decisions -- after winning seven in a row. He was 0-4 with a 5.93 ERA in September despite an eight-inning two-hitter against the New York Mets on Sept. 20 in a no-decision. He also was 5-4 with a 2.95 ERA at pitcher-friendly Dolphins Stadium and 7-8 with a 3.80 ERA on the road in 2005.
But he has a 98-mile-an-hour fastball and upside, to use a buzzword, even if the optics of the contract aren't good.
After a 12-12 season with a 3.44 ERA, he became a free agent at the right time, when there were few top-grade starting pitchers on the market. And it just so happens that the stronger Canadian dollar has allowed the Blue Jays to begin spending money again. Burnett's timing was impeccable. And as a bonus, he is reunited with a favourite pitching coach from his Marlins days, Brad Arnsberg, now the Blue Jays pitching coach.
So in slightly more than a week, the Blue Jays have signed a B.J. (free-agent closer Ryan) and an A.J. Both were signed by a J.P.(general manager Ricciardi), who for some reason also has signed his own three-year extension.
What's next? A team uniform emblazoned with T.O.B.J.? So if B.J. is a Pearl Jam kind of guy and J.P. likes Bruce Springsteen., what kind of guy is A.J.? Well, he has had the music of Marilyn Manson played before his starts. He wears nipple rings and tattoos.
He also was known as the Marlins' Minister of Pies. He was the one who would shove a pie of shaving cream into the face of a teammate who had contributed to a victory and was being interviewed on TV after a game.
But his Florida days fizzled a week before the end of this past season when he was sent home after he criticized the team as it dropped from playoff contention.
"We play scared," Burnett told reporters after a game. "We manage scared. We coach scared and I'm sick of it. It's depressing around here. It's like they expect us to mess up, and when we do they chew us out. There's no positive nothing around here for anybody."
Burnett coughed up a 3-0 lead in that game, a loss to the Atlanta Braves and he finished 0-4 against the National League East winners.
"A positive pat on the back is better than anything, and I ain't seen a positive pat on the back since April," Burnett continued after the loss to the Braves. "Guys are out here busting their butts. We ain't trying to lose. We ain't trying to give up runs or strike out. Yet you still hear negativity. I ain't saying no names. It's just too much negativity."
He later apologized for his comments but there was no secret that Jack McKeon, who has since been replaced as manager, was unpopular with many players.
Burnett will get plenty of positive reinforcement from the Blue Jays management. But with the Marlins it's easy to see why there was little of that for him late in the season.
He could not hold a 4-1 lead against wild-card contenders, the Philadelphia Phillies, in a loss on Sept. 9. In his next start against the eventual wild-card winning Houston Astros, he walked the eighth and ninth hitters -- catcher Brad Ausmus and pitcher Roger Clemens -- with the bases loaded in the second inning.
If there was a positive aspect to his 2005 season, it was that he pitched a career-high 209 innings and 32 starts. The only other season he pitched at that level was in 2002 when he had 31 starts and 204 innings in his best season, 12-9 with a 3.30 ERA. The next season he was limited to four starts before having elbow surgery. A thumb injury limited him to 13 starts in 2000.
Full name: Allan James Burnett
Position: Right-hand pitcher
Born: Jan. 3, 1977, Little Rock, Ark.
Residence: Miramar, Fla.
Family: Wife, Karen; sons, Allan James Jr. (4) and Ashton Alexander (1).
Hobbies: Fishing and playing drums.
2005 record: 12-12, 3.44 earned-run average.
Career record: 49-50, 3.73 ERA.
Best season: 2002, 12-9, 3.30 ERA.
Injury: Limited to four starts in 2003 before undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery on April 29, 2003.
Highlight: No-hitter in a 3-0 victory at San Diego, May 12, 2001, in which he struck out seven and walked nine, hit a batter and threw a wild pitch.
2005 salary: $3.65-million (U.S.)
Pitches: Fastball (four-seam and two-seam), changeup, curveball, slider.
He's got one of the best arms in baseball. On any given night, he can shut out. I just think he'll fit in perfect.
-- Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons
We are much more competitive now than we have been in a number of years. And we're getting closer. -- Blue Jays president Paul Godfrey
This is going to be a fun five years.
-- A.J. Burnett, the former Florida Marlins pitcher signed yesterday by the Blue Jays