DALLAS (AP) – The Toronto Blue Jays emerged as baseball’s new big spender, agreeing to a $55 million, five-year contract with pitcher A.J. Burnett on Tuesday.

One week after giving reliever B.J. Ryan a $47 million, five-year deal, the splurging Blue Jays landed the top starting pitcher on the free-agent market, one they hope will help them compete with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the AL East.

“Sooner, rather than later, we’re going to see a new team on top there,” Burnett said.

On the second day of the winter meetings, the Los Angeles Dodgers filled the last open manager’s job in the major leagues, hiring former Boston manager Grady Little, still blamed by Red Sox fans for leaving in Pedro Martinez too long in Game 7 of the 2003 AL championship series.

“That’s New England and it’s Boston,” Little said. “All they want to do is win, and that’s all we were trying to do.”

On the trade front, the San Francisco Giants sent right-hander LaTroy Hawkins to the Baltimore Orioles.

The Cincinnati Reds reached a preliminary agreement to send first baseman Sean Casey to the Pittsburgh Pirates for left-hander Dave Williams, a deal subject to physicals.

There also was talk the San Diego Padres would deal third baseman Sean Burroughs to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for right-hander Dewon Brazelton.

Among free agents, Cleveland was negotiating with closer Trevor Hoffman and the Seattle Mariners were said to be talking with Kevin Millwood. San Diego improved its proposal to retain Hoffman, offering a deal with a 2008 option that could become guaranteed under certain conditions.

Designated hitter Mike Piazza appears to be attracting interest from the Los Angeles Angels, Seattle and Minnesota. Shortstop Rafael Furcal’s $39 million, three-year agreement with the Dodgers could be finalized Wednesday.

Officials of the New York Mets had a meeting with the Boston Red Sox on Monday and discussed Manny Ramirez. The Mets are waiting for the Red Sox to get back to them with what it would take to put together a deal for the 2004 World Series MVP, who wants out of Boston.

Mets general manager Omar Minaya also called New York pitcher Kris Benson to discuss trade rumors.

“I’m getting calls on him,” Minaya said. “His name is out there. It’s a hot name right now.”

Houston Astros officials said they wouldn’t decide until Wednesday whether to offer salary arbitration to 43-year-old Roger Clemens, who hasn’t decided whether to retire or pitch next year. If the seven-time Cy Young Award winner isn’t offered arbitration by the 11 p.m. deadline, he couldn’t re-sign with his hometown team until May 1.

“It’s a gut-wrenching, agonizing decision,” Astros general manager Tim Purpura said. “From a talent point of view, I don’t want to lose him. I also realize we need to improve our clubs. It’s very difficult for me to move forward in doing that if I have such uncertainty.”

Also, the Red Sox said that 37-year-old first baseman John Olerud, who became a free agent after the season, has decided to retire.

Toronto hasn’t finished first in the AL East since winning the 1993 World Series. General manager J.P. Ricciardi, given a three-year contract extension through 2010 on Tuesday, has been aggressive in his pursuit of pitching.

Baseball officials believe the deals for Burnett and Ryan are the first five-year contracts given to pitchers since Chan Ho Park’s $65 million deal with Texas on Dec. 22, 2001. Ricciardi said he wasn’t worried about the contract length because Burnett and Ryan are under 30.

“One thing about the free-agent game is if you’re going to get in it, you can’t get in it halfway,” Ricciardi said. “Either you’re going to be a player or you’re not.”

Burnett followed Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Carlos Delgado, Luis Castillo and Paul Lo Duca out of Florida, where the Marlins are cutting payroll because they haven’t gotten funding for a new ballpark.

Marlins president David Samson visited San Antonio on Tuesday as part of a preliminary search for a possible new home for the team. Samson said the city was the first stop on a tour that will last three to five months.

“We’re not a free-agent pitcher. We’re a team looking for a right fit,” Samson said.

Burnett is a 28-year-old right-hander with a 98 mph fastball, and he also was pursued by St. Louis – however, the Cardinals offered only four years.

He had a 49-50 career record with the Marlins, missing almost all of the 2003 season. He returned following reconstructive elbow surgery and was 12-12 with a 3.44 ERA last season. Florida banished him during the final week after he criticized manager Jack McKeon and coaches.

“Sometimes there’s personality conflicts,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said. “He was frustrated. Things were said he probably regrets.”



AP Sports Writers Mike Fitzpatrick, Jimmy Golen and Stephen Hawkins contributed to this report.

AP-ES-12-06-05 2118EST


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