Looking back at the Blue Jays’ offseason spending spree of 2005

There was once a time when the Toronto Blue Jays were among the biggest spenders MLB free agency. In 2005, they emptied the tank, signed multiple high-priced free agents and acquired a few impact players to go along with them.

An offseason 14 years in the rear-view mirror, it seemed like a pertinent time to look back at the Blue Jays’ offseason spending spree of 2005. You know, the exact opposite of how the last few winters have transpired for the Blue Jays.

The 2005 offseason was headlined by two major signings by the Blue Jays: a five-year, $55M contract for A. J. Burnett and a five-year, $47 million deal for B.J. Ryan. Both deals broke records as the biggest contracts signed by a starter and reliever. That collective $102M — along with the $5M the Jays spent on free agent catchers Bengie Molina and Jason Phillips — was the most the Blue Jays have ever spent in one offseason in free agency: $107M.

During the early 2000s, the Blue Jays were among the biggest penny-pinchers in Major League Baseball. That all changed in early 2005 when Rogers Communications purchased the SkyDome and committed to inject $210M into the Blue Jays payroll over a three-year span.

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Payroll steadily increased from nearly $46M in 2005, to $69M in 2006, $84M in 2007 and $104M in 2008. In three years, the Blue Jays’ payroll more than doubled. The franchise went from being among the bottom-third of teams in payroll to the top-third.

The Blue Jays broke the bank to bring Burnett into the fold for their starting rotation, and they added Ryan as an impact closer to shore up the back-end of their bullpen. In a climate when the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers were the titans of baseball, the Blue Jays shocked everyone by pulling off two major moves.

The Burnett Deal: 5 years, $55M

The Burnett contract happened in December 2005 after the Ryan signing, but it was Burnett’s deal that turned the most heads across baseball. Having just wrapped a seven-year tour with the Florida Marlins, Burnett was a free agent for the first time in his career and he was aiming to get paid as one of the marquee starting pitchers on the market.

Down in Florida, the Marlins were amid their second rebuild in less than a decade. Burnett watched most of his teammates traded away to contenders as the Marlins limped to a third-place finish in the NL East that year. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays wrapped an 80-82 campaign in 2005 and were staring up at two giants: the Yankees and Red Sox.

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The Blue Jays were aggressive in their pursuit of Burnett and were rumoured to be the only team who offered him a five-year deal. The St. Louis Cardinals reportedly went to a fourth year, but the Blue Jays stepped up with five years and $55M, offering an opt-out clause after the third year of the deal.

The club didn’t make this big of a play in free agency on the pitching side since signing Roger Clemens as a free agent to a four-year, $40M deal ahead of the 1997 season.

Blue Jays GM J. P. Ricciardi wasn’t coy about the process to land Burnett. “One thing about the free-agent game is if you’re going to get in it, you can’t get in it halfway. Either you’re going to be a player or you’re not,” Ricciardi said in an AP report.

Burnett and Ryan’s deals combined accounted for $102M tied up in two pitchers over a five-year span. In retrospect, that length of commitment and dollar figure seems crazy for a 28 and 29-year-old pitcher, but that was normal in the free agent climate of 2005.

In retrospect, it may have been a bit of an overpay on the Blue Jays’ part, but overspending on free agents was the only way to attract top-tier talent to the club back then. The Blue Jays would never be on par with other teams in the recruitment process, that’s why they had to come over the top and offer longer term and more dollars than their competitors.

In the end, the Burnett deal panned out well for the Blue Jays. Burnett posted career highs in games started and strikeouts in 2008 and opted out of the final two years of his deal and he entered free agency. The Blue Jays forked over $25M plus a $6M signing bonus for three years of Burnett’s services.

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Burnett’s multi-year contract was the last the Blue Jays would sign for a ten-year period, before they re-upped J.A. Happ to three-year deal during the winter of 2015.

The Ryan Deal: 5 years, $47M

The Ryan contract may have been problematic from the get-go. From 2001 to 2005, Ryan was one of the most durable relievers in MLB, averaging 70 appearances per season over that five-year stretch. The right-hander enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career in 2004, but really blossomed in 2005 when he took the helm as the Orioles’ closer.

At the time, Ryan was one of the most attractive closers on the market, even if his body of a work as a “closer” was relatively thin. He still had solid numbers as a reliever for five years running. Much like with Burnett, the Blue Jays had their eyes set on Ryan and swung for the fences with a five-year deal for Ryan.

For all his warts as a pitcher, it sounds like the Blue Jays front office believed whole-heartedly in Ryan, indicated by this glowing introduction from Ricciardi himself.

“B.J. Ryan is both an outstanding pitcher and person and we’re excited to have him join our Blue Jays family. He stands among the few pitchers in baseball worthy of a five-year contract. I know our starting pitchers will be very happy to hear this news,” Ricciardi said.

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Unlike Burnett’s deal, Ryan’s contract didn’t offer an opt-out clause; just $47M in guaranteed money. Rival GM’s were stunned by the signing and heeded a warning to the Blue Jays. (From Sports Illustrated)

“This is a massive risk for [the Blue Jays],” says the G.M. of one National League club. “You’re talking Mariano Rivera money for a guy who hasn’t really proved himself. Of course, if he succeeds, [Toronto] will look very smart and it could drive the cost for closers even higher.”

Ryan continued to bulldoze through the American League East during the 2006 season and earned his second consecutive All-Star nod at the Midsummer Classic. He was even better than advertised during his first year as a Blue Jay, but it all came crashing down in year two.

After posting dreadful numbers through his first five games of the 2007 season, it was announced that Ryan would undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the rest of the season.

Ryan bounced back in 2008 and picked up where he left in 2006, notching 32 saves with a 2.95 ERA across 60 appearances. However, his strikeout rate plummeted from 31.9% in his All-Star season in 2006 to 23.3% in 2008.

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He signed a record-setting five-year deal, but Ryan never made it to year five. He slogged through 25 games in 2009 only to find himself released by the club on July 8, 2009. The Blue Jays ate the rest of his contract, which was approximately $15M ($12M of it guaranteed for the 2010 season).

The Blue Jays got two good years out of Ryan, lost one year to Tommy John surgery, and ate the final year of the deal. That was the cost of doing business for a team desperate to claw their way back into the playoffs.

Final Thoughts

The Blue Jays swung for the fences in the winter of 2005, but they missed. They tried and failed, but there’s something to be said for a team who tried to win, when everything indicated they shouldn’t. Even with two goliaths staring down at them from atop the AL East, the Blue Jays went for it by bringing in Burnett and Ryan.

By contrast, in today’s era of baseball, the race to the bottom has become this weird, celebrated ritual. That wasn’t the case in 2005 when the Blue Jays made two of the boldest moves in free agency.