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Blue Jays bagged Burnett at 2005 Meetings

Toronto re-established itself as big-market club by signing right-hander
MLB.com @gregorMLB

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays haven't made a lot of moves at recent Winter Meetings, but make no mistake about it, the annual event has played a crucial role in franchise history.

The Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter trade in 1990, the Roy Halladay sweepstakes of 2009 and Shaun Marcum for Brett Lawrie in 2010 are just a few of the deals that gained traction at the center of baseball's offseason Hot Stove. Free agency has been even more active.

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays haven't made a lot of moves at recent Winter Meetings, but make no mistake about it, the annual event has played a crucial role in franchise history.

The Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter trade in 1990, the Roy Halladay sweepstakes of 2009 and Shaun Marcum for Brett Lawrie in 2010 are just a few of the deals that gained traction at the center of baseball's offseason Hot Stove. Free agency has been even more active.

Toronto's pursuit of Roger Clemens in 1996 arguably was its most successful signing, but the most dramatic might have been A.J. Burnett in 2005. At a time when the Blue Jays were not considered a big-market team, or had big-market expenses, J.P. Ricciardi wanted to prove otherwise.

The Blue Jays openly wooed Burnett over a period of several weeks before his deal was officially announced on Dec. 6 at the Winter Meetings in Dallas. Burnett received a five-year deal worth $55 million, which was the largest contract handed to a free-agent pitcher over the previous four years.

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"We're just really excited to have A.J. here," Ricciardi told reporters at the time. "It's been a long process, but it's one worth going through. We're just really happy that A.J. decided to join us, and we're looking forward to seeing him and [Roy] Halladay come out the next time we have to walk into Fenway or Yankee Stadium."

Burnett's deal represented a major coup, but at the start of the process it was far from being a sure thing. St. Louis was considered the heavy front-runner, but Toronto's willingness to include a fifth year -- and perhaps more importantly an opt-out clause after Year 3 -- proved to be the difference.

Video: Burnett strikes out six and allows one unearned run

Financials aside, the presence of Halladay also helped turn things in Toronto's favor at the Winter Meetings. At the time, Halladay was one of Burnett's idols and the two quickly developed a big brother-little brother type of relationship that extended well beyond the field.

Burnett started his Blue Jays career by trying to follow every step of Halladay's infamous workout routine. That proved to be impossible, but Burnett credits his time alongside Halladay as being the main reason he went from someone who possessed the raw skills to someone who knew how to utilize them.

"Doc had an impact on me as a man and as a pitcher," Burnett told MLB.com after Halladay's tragic passing in November. "I always had that animal instinct on the mound, but I never really knew what to do with it. When I got around Doc in Toronto, I saw a different kind of animal instinct on the mound I had never seen before."

Video: Feinsand discusses Halladay's influence on Burnett

Burnett's signing came at a time when the Blue Jays were making a big push to contend. Toronto signed closer B.J. Ryan to a five-year deal a couple weeks earlier, and it wouldn't be long before the Blue Jays acquired Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay from teams in the National League. In the end, the acquisitions led to an 85-win season, but without a second Wild Card spot, Toronto still finished well back of a postseason berth.

The Burnett era also would prove to be rather short-lived. Burnett exercised the opt-out clause following the 2008 season, and he went on to appear in multiple postseasons for the Yankees and Pirates, but Toronto didn't get there until 2015. This is more a story about what could have been instead of what was.

"I came out to visit [Toronto] and fell in love the first time," Burnett said after signing. "It's one big family here, and I feel just from being around the right people is gonna make me a better person on and off the field. That's how you have success, being around the right people."

Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.

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