Epstein's decision to reach out and call agent Darek Braunecker was a clear sign that the Red Sox are ready to jump into the fray and compete with Toronto, the New York Yankees and several other clubs for Burnett, an 18-game winner for the Blue Jays in 2008.
Braunecker told 1050 ESPN New York's Andrew Marchand on Wednesday that he had indeed heard from the Red Sox and that "there is mutual interest."
Until recently, it appeared that Boston's sights were focused primarily on a free-agent hitter -- most notably, first baseman Mark Teixeira. With Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield in the rotation and Justin Masterson a candidate to move over from the bullpen, several people with knowledge of Boston's thinking had said the team wasn't interested in signing another high-priced starter.
The possibility exists that Boston is now getting involved as a ploy to drive up the price on Burnett for his other suitors -- which include three American League East rivals. But Newsday reported Tuesday that the Red Sox are now "fully engaged,'' and a source told ESPN.com that the team considers Burnett a "priority.''
"They've got a lot of balls in the air,'' the source said of the Red Sox, "but they're involved now.''
Braunecker also told 1050 ESPN New York that he is seeking a long-term deal.
"The framework of a deal is five years," he said. "If a team can't do that, they will be behind the 8-ball a little bit."
Earlier this winter, baseball officials and agents speculated that Burnett might be seeking a contract with a higher average annual value than Jason Schmidt's three-year, $47 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Burnett signed a five-year, $55 million contract with Toronto in December 2005, but recently exercised a contractual clause to opt out of the deal with two years and $24 million remaining.
Although a deal in the neighborhood of Carlos Zambrano's five-year, $91.5 million contract with the Chicago Cubs might seem far-fetched to many baseball executives, the number of interested suitors can only serve to drive up Burnett's price.
Burnett, 31, has had injury issues in his career. But he posted an 18-10 record with a 4.07 ERA this season and established career highs with 34 starts and 221 1/3 innings.
The market for front-line starting pitchers has gotten off to a fast start. The Yankees and Milwaukee Brewers have already offered CC Sabathia long-term deals worth more than $100 million each this month. And FoxSports.com, citing two unnamed executives, reported that agent Scott Boras is seeking a "Barry Zito-type" $18 million-per-year contract for 36-year-old Derek Lowe. Zito signed a seven-year, $126 million deal with the San Francisco Giants in December 2006.
Several news outlets have said the Yankees are contemplating a five-year, $80 million offer for Burnett, but those reports couldn't be confirmed. But a source said reports of Toronto making a four-year, $54 million offer to Burnett are inaccurate.
Jerry Crasnick is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com.