LAS VEGAS -- Life in the American League East just became a lot more difficult for the Toronto Blue Jays, if that was even possible. The division was daunting enough before the New York Yankees defied the current economic downturn by reeling in this offseason's biggest prize: free-agent starter CC Sabathia.

Naturally, the Blue Jays types who have been wandering the halls here at the Bellagio during these Winter Meetings were none too pleased with the development. When asked about having to face a pinstriped Sabathia, Toronto manager Cito Gaston shook his head and forced a smile.

"Bad news for us," Gaston said. "Good news for Sabathia and good news for the Yankees. I was hoping that he would actually go out to San Francisco or somewhere else. I know he's just one guy, but he's a tough guy to beat."

Sabathia's signing -- a seven-year pact believed to be worth around $160 million -- could have an impact on the Blue Jays before the club even takes on the big left-hander. Now that Sabathia has agreed to a contract, the asking price for A.J. Burnett could see a significant increase, making it even more unlikely that Toronto can retain the right-hander.

For what it's worth, Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi sat down with Burnett's agent, Darek Braunecker, on Wednesday to discuss his situation. Toronto hardly seems like a player in the competition to sign Burnett these days, but Ricciardi said Braunecker promised to circle back with the Jays before any decision was made.

"That was the whole deal from the beginning," Ricciardi said, "that he knew what he had in Toronto and it was important for him to go get information outside. I think once he got that information and he felt like he's gathered it all, he can come back and talk to us."

There's a realistic chance that the Yankees might just deliver another blow to the Blue Jays by adding Burnett behind Sabathia in their rotation. On Wednesday, reports surfaced that New York sent a five-year guaranteed offer Burnett's way. Ricciardi indicated on Tuesday that the Jays aren't willing to give Burnett a five-year contract.

None of this is coming as a surprise to Ricciardi.

"The Yankees pretty much made known that they were going to be active this winter," he said. "When you're talking about the Yankees, they have the ability to do a lot of things that maybe most teams don't do."

Ricciardi might as well have been referring to his own team.

The Blue Jays have been given the go-ahead from ownership to pursue Burnett, but not any other high-profile free-agent starters. Any other additions -- on the mound or to the offense -- will require subsequent moves in order to free up payroll. Unlike the Yankees, the Jays have been strapped for cash due to the poor economic climate.

Toronto will keep exploring the trade market for arms, and is looking at reclamation projects such as Carl Pavano, but it's more likely that the club will try to fill its rotation vacancies internally. That could create a youth movement for the Jays in 2009, with hope that the experience gained will mean better things are in store two seasons from now.

"We've got the big picture in mind," said Ricciardi, referring to relying on younger arms. "We know those kids are going to fail at some point. They're not all just going to hit the ground running and take off. Any time you play young players, you're going to go through that. We're willing to let those guys go through the development curve."

Due to the current situation, Gaston said it might not make sense to re-sign Burnett anyway. Even with Burnett in the fold, the Jays' starting staff would be without Dustin McGowan (right shoulder) until May and Shaun Marcum (right elbow) until 2010. Keeping Burnett wouldn't guarantee that Toronto would be able to contend for a playoff spot in 2009.

"If you really sit down and look at it," Gaston said, "would it make us a better team if we signed A.J. back right now? I don't think so. It wouldn't make us a bad team, but do we have enough? Do we have enough to get where we want to go with him back? Because we have two other starters that we're missing.

"We're not moving backwards, we're moving forward. But it's going to take us a little while to get there."

Gaston is hoping the current big-picture outlook includes free-agent shortstop Rafael Furcal, who would provide the Jays with an upgrade at the leadoff spot. But, again, adding Furcal would mean that Toronto would need to dump some salary. Ricciardi said the club didn't necessarily need to swing a trade before making a signing, though.

"We would probably deal with that after we did something," said Ricciardi, who met with Furcal's representatives this week. "We wouldn't clear the deck first."

Besides Furcal, the Blue Jays have met with the agent for free-agent catcher Michael Barrett, who is a possibility for the club's backup job. Ricciardi also noted that Toronto has its eye on a few players for Thursday's Rule 5 Draft.

The Jays will also be paying attention to what else the Yankees have in store.

"I'm hearing that they're not done," Gaston said.