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02/10/2005 11:05 AM ET

Burnett sets sights on another ring

Righty feeling healthy, confident heading into season

By Joe Frisaro / MLB.com

 

MIAMI LAKES, Fla. -- Heap praises and high expectations on the Marlins. A.J. Burnett isn't ducking the fact he expects the retooled 2005 Florida squad to reach the postseason.

 

"We should have won last year," Burnett said. "We didn't have the respect last year and we should have won. We better win this year, or we're never going to get it [respect] back. We've got good pitching, we've got good defense, and we've got good offense. If we don't go to the playoffs, I'd definitely be upset. It would be a letdown season."

 

Should the Marlins indeed recapture their 2003 World Series magic, Burnett will likely be a major reason why. The hard-throwing right-hander is one of the aces of a pitching staff that, if healthy, should rank near the top in the major statistical categories.

 

A free agent after the season, the 28-year-old with the 100-mph fastball looks to fulfill his massive potential. In order to do so, he must stay off the disabled list.

 

Injuries have plagued Burnett for three straight seasons. He's ready to reverse his luck, and talked about it during a recent caravan stop. The annual Marlins caravan continues through Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. It concludes on Friday, and Saturday will be the annual FanFest, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET at Dolphins Stadium.

 

Tommy John ligament replacement surgery cost Burnett almost the entire 2003 season, forcing him to watch the Marlins' miraculous World Series run. Last year, he started off on the DL as he continued rehabilitation from his surgery. Burnett did make 19 starts and appeared in 20 games, going 7-6 with a 3.68 ERA.

 

Typically, Tommy John patients recover fully two years after the procedure. If that is the case for Burnett, there is no telling what he can do. Give him 34 starts, and a 20-win season is a possibility. The most starts Burnett has compiled in a season is 29, in 2002, where he appeared in 31 games. That also was the year he first encountered elbow troubles.

 

Based on his previous health concerns, if you ask Burnett what his primary goal is in 2005, you will get a terse response.

 

"Healthy season," Burnett said. "That's all I need. Thirty-four healthy starts. I'm not going to set any goals besides that."

 

The way Burnett sees it, if he piles up the starts and innings, his numbers will speak for themselves. And after watching what pitchers were making in free agency this offseason, he is ready to see what his value is. Burnett is close friends with Carl Pavano, who won 18 games for the Marlins in 2004. The fact that Pavano signed a four-year, $42 million contract with the Yankees has piqued Burnett's motivation.

 

"I'm confident in my ability and my stuff that if I have a healthy year, I'm gong to have just as fun an offseason as Carl did," Burnett said.

 

The subject of trade rumors at the December Winter Meetings, Burnett signed a one-year, $3.65 million contract in early January.

 

"I'm happy," said Burnett, who was linked to possible deals with the Yankees for Javier Vazquez and the A's for Tim Hudson. "I didn't want to go anywhere. I know they went to the meetings and they weren't expecting to throw my name out there, and when they did, they pretty much saw what I was worth. Maybe if we start out 8-0, we'll start talking again after that first month."

 

While expressing he is happy being with the Marlins, he doesn't anticipate signing a long-term deal with the club during the season.

 

"I don't want to leave," said Burnett, who is 37-38 with a 3.83 ERA overall as a Marlin. "I like playing ball here. And this team is tough. We'll talk. As far as I'm concerned, I'm pretty much going to test the waters if I have a healthy season. Free agency looks like a fun time."

 

If their pitching holds up, the Marlins promise to contend in the National League East. Aspirations are high after the free agent signings of slugger Carlos Delgado and pitcher Al Leiter.

 

Adding a veteran like Leiter should benefit younger pitchers like Burnett.

 

Leiter, in his second stint with the Marlins, actually was traded to the Mets in a deal that included Burnett after the 1997 season.

 

Leiter was 10-8 with a 3.21 ERA for the Mets in 2004. Burnett expects the veteran lefty will help the Marlins on the mound and with his insights in the dugout.

 

"[Leiter] had a very good year last year on a mediocre team," Burnett said. "Put him on a good team and he's going to have a good season. Besides that, he's going to bring a lot to the locker room and the dugout. I know he's a character and he knows his baseball. He's going to be a guy we have a chance to talk to that we hadn't had in the past."

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