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Cito Gaston seems convinced that A.J. Burnett will opt out of the last two years of his contract and test the free agent market this winter:

“It certainly looks like A.J. probably won’t be here — I don’t know,” Gaston said on Saturday. “He seems to want to get closer to home. Just put the numbers together and you can figure that one out real easy. He’s probably got to do what’s best for his family.

“I’d love to have him here, but if he wants to go somewhere else, you can’t do anything about that.”

It’s a logical enough move. Burnett would be owed $24 million over the next two seasons if he were to stick in Toronto. Unless he tears a ligament in the next six weeks, he should do much better than that as a free agent.

But is this as much of a given as people seem to think? Remember, player salaries are simply a function of industry revenues. And while baseball seems to be holding up very well despite the negative economic climate, if the expectations for future revenues fall, the free agent market will be drier than most expect.

I already wrote most of my thoughts on this in March, so I’ll reprint instead of rehashing:

Kyle Lohse is still a free agent, and IÕm convinced itÕs because of the economic downturn. Consider that guys like Josh Fogg and Bartolo Colon have had to take one year deals with little or no guaranteed money, when similar pitchers were cashing in a year ago. I canÕt buy into the theory that teams are evaluating performance better on an industry-wide level, not when weÕre talking about a one year timespan.

HereÕs one alternative thought: there are only a certain amount of teams that a) have money to spend, b) are competitive or close to it, and c) canÕt tell that Jason Marquis isnÕt that good. ItÕs possible that the demand for high-priced, Òmid-levelÓ starting pitchers has dried up within that subset, and never really existed outside of it. Some of these teams (the Cubs, for one) have no need for another high-priced starter, while others are being weighed down by fear of a recession.

A.J. probably won’t get squeezed. Unlike Lohse, Colon, and Fogg, he’s a top-tier starter, and should have plenty of bidders. Had he been a midlevel starter with an oversized contract, this would have been a more interesting case study.

But it should be an interesting winter regardless. A lot of this will be driven by psychology, perhaps more so than by actual financial projections. If certain big spenders tighten their wallets a bit, many others will likely follow.

The question is, will guys like Lohse (who will be a free agent again) be willing to wait it out, and risk having the market seize on them? And what about the agents’ strategies? Will they push their clients to sign early, or hope that it becomes a buyer’s market like 2006 and 2007?

Here’s one thought, on a bit of a side note: A.J. Burnett is probably hoping the Yankees are interested. If so, he should do just fine, wherever he lands.

Feedback? Write a comment, or e-mail the author at shawn(AT)squawkingbaseball.com

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