ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals may be positioning themselves to make their biggest splash in free agency in quite some time.
St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty and manager Tony La Russa traveled to South Florida this week to meet with right-hander A.J. Burnett and his agent Derek Braunecker, who confirmed the meeting Thursday. Burnett, 28, is widely considered the top prize among starting pitchers in this year's free agent class.
Most of the Cards' major acquisitions in recent years have come via trade. They haven't signed another team's free agent to a contract longer than two years or with a total value of more than $6 million since bringing in Jason Isringhausen and Tino Martinez before the 2002 season. Burnett is reportedly seeking a five-year deal.
Braunecker said that specific contract terms were not discussed. Rather, the meeting was more of a chance for the player and team to get to know each other. Still, with Jocketty flying in from St. Louis, and La Russa coming east from his home in California, it's safe to say that the Cards' interest is significant.
"I think what they're trying to do is get a better assessment of the person the player is, and vice versa," Braunecker said. "We're just trying to get a better sense of who potentially is interested to the degree that we'll further the dialogue with them. And they certainly appear to be one of those clubs."
Jocketty was unavailable for comment, and assistant general manager John Mozeliek declined to comment on discussions with any specific free agent. La Russa would not specifically confirm a meeting with Burnett, but said that he and Jocketty had traveled to South Florida to meet with free agents. Burnett, who spent the first seven years of his Major League career with the Marlins, makes his home in Miramar, Fla.
"We made a trip to talk to some free agents," La Russa said. "I think it's always smarter, Walt's philosophy of flying under the radar screen is more effective."
The Cardinals have four members of their 2005 starting rotation under contract or under club control for 2006 -- Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis. All but Marquis are actually signed, with Marquis eligible for arbitration. Right-hander Matt Morris is a free agent and has drawn interest from several clubs.
Top prospect Anthony Reyes is expected to compete for a job in the starting rotation, so if the Cardinals were to sign Burnett -- or any free agent starter -- they would likely need to make a trade, both to clear payroll space and a spot in the rotation. Dollars are a concern for St. Louis, but the Cards might be able and willing to bend a bit under the right circumstances. La Russa said that pitching is the Cardinals' top priority, despite having three openings in their everyday lineup.
Complete coverage >
Burnett's raw stuff is as impressive as just about any pitcher in baseball. He has shown improved command in recent years and has become an extreme groundball pitcher. He ranked 12th in the National League in ERA, seventh in strikeouts and fifth in groundball/flyball ratio in 2005.
The right-hander hails originally from Little Rock, Ark, which is about a six-hour drive from St. Louis. Braunecker said that being close to home held some interest for Burnett, but that it wouldn't be the determining factor in a decision.
"I'd say the greater appeal is just simply that they have a history of winning, and they've got all the necessary ingredients to continue to win," Braunecker said. "The geography is probably ... some appeal certainly, but it's really more a matter of what that organization represents." - MLB.com
Wow. Imagine a rotation headed by Carpenter, Burnett and Mulder. Impressive.
If that happened can we expect Marquis to be a prime trading chip to plug one of their holes in the field? How about for Kevin Mench? Reyes is ready to be in the rotation and they have re-signed Suppan....Marquis is the odd one out.