Mark Buehrle’s contract expires at the end of the season and the veteran lefty isn’t confident he will work out an extension with the White Sox before hitting free agency. It’s very possible that, for the first time in his 12-year career, Buehrle will test the market and potentially sign with another team.
Though Buehrle has hinted at retirement on numerous occasions, manager Ozzie Guillen believes he’ll pitch next season. Guillen thinks Buehrle has too much left to offer major league teams to simply walk away. Buehrle has never come across as an egotistical stats-monger or the kind of pitcher so wrapped up in his legacy to stick around for specific milestones. That doesn’t mean he will definitely retire while pitching at a high level, but it also makes his free agent prospects tough to predict.
What might Buehrle make if he hits free agency? And for how long would he sign? Despite a better career and more established track record than the likes of Ted Lilly, Randy Wolf and Wandy Rodriguez, might teams mistakenly lump him in with that group?
First, a statistical comparison:
Buehrle 2011: 4.8 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 45% GBs, .291 BABIP, 72% LOB, 3.58 ERA, 4.14 xFIP
Buehrle Career: 5.0 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 46% GBs, .291 BABIP, 72% LOB, 3.83 ERA, 4.22 xFIP
Almost mirror images, right? Buehrle is right on his career averages this season and he does this practically every single season, like clockwork. He is Jeff Suppan-esque in his consistency except he doesn’t stink. Buehrle has tallied right around 46 WAR over 12 seasons and almost always produces 3.5-4.5 per season. Even his worst season was still league average by our standards here.
A major component of his success is durability. Buehrle makes just about every start in every season and pitches deep into games. Since 2001, his first full season in the majors, he has never thrown fewer than 201 innings. He often ends up in the 210-230 innings range. With 186 innings on his current line and three more starts left this month it would take successive clunkers to prevent him from passing the double century mark again.
Where does everything here rank contextually? From 2001-11, his WAR total ranks seventh among pitchers behind: Roy Halladay, C.C. Sabathia, Roy Oswalt, Randy Johnson, Johan Santana and Javier Vazquez. Only Livan Hernandez has made more starts (361 to 359), and only he and Sabathia have logged more innings. Though, to be fair, the gap between Hernandez and Sabathia/Buehrle equates to a measly one start per year over eleven seasons.
Buehrle’s career WAR total puts him right in line with Brad Radke, a very similar pitcher in terms of approach. Radke had a career 5.4 K/9, 1.6 BB/9, 41% GBs and .292 BABIP. While the strikeout-to-walk ratio is better than Buehrle’s, the peripherals are very comparable. Both pitched more to contact and prevented free passes at a great rate. Further, they were less hittable than the league — with over a decade of evidence and numerous defensive turnovers it seems safe to suggest that their lower BABIPs were more contingent on their skill sets than anything team-oriented.
Durability, age and sustained success over a longer period of time separate Buehrle from the southpaws mentioned above. These attributes also separate him from up-and-coming pitchers with similar approaches, like Doug Fister. Wolf is 34 years old and missed plenty of time from 2005-07. Ted Lilly is 37 years old. Wandy Rodriguez is Buehrle’s age, but peaked late and won’t be as successful as long. These three pitchers all signed deals with average annual values ranging from $10-$12 million in recent years.
Buehrle, however, was a full-time starter as soon as he could legally buy alcohol and, over a decade later, is still bringing it. His current season is a lot like his age-28 season, which was similar to his age-24 season. While most players see their skills worsen with age, Buehrle hasn’t experienced anything resembling a substantial decline. It’s tough to imagine a pitcher like this suddenly turning into a pumpkin. While the three comparable lefties signed for $10-$12 million per season, Buehrle signed for $14 million. He was perceived more effective then and will likely remain that way now.
The real up in the air issue is the length of his deal. Various teams would offer him a three- or four-year deal with AAVs in the $12-$14 million range, but he may not want to pitch that much longer. With retirement clearly looming in the back of his head, a string of one- or two-year deals could close out his career, which makes him all the more attractive to potential suitors. An extra year or two couldn’t be used as a negotiating ploy, and Buehrle might actually be able extract more in consecutive, shorter-term deals than he would in a long-term contract. He’s in a no-risk zone.
Hopefully, Buehrle hits free agency because his case will be very interesting to follow. While fans value consistency in his sense, it remains to be seen just how much teams will value it on the free agent market, especially if he doesn’t want to sign a long-term deal, where that attribute becomes more important.