Ready to Deal?
It is that time of year again. It's late June, teams are figuring what they have and what they need, with the bad teams looking to ship older, expensive talent for young, inexpensive promise. The biggest name that has been floating around for the last week or so is the Chicago White Sox's Mark Buehrle (although today's Chicago Sun Times reports he is on the cusp of signing an extension with the Pale Hose). No matter, I planned on profiling Buehrle and will forge on.
In that he does not strike out many batters year after year but manages to put up impressive numbers, Buehrle is somewhat anomalous. Still, it is impossible to argue with his productivity and in Buehrle's case, you might even contend that his propensity to pitch to contact - and consistently do so while getting outs - affords him his greatest attribute, the inning pitched. Buehrle racks them up with the best of them.
Since Buehrle's first full season in 2001, only Livan Hernandez has pitched more innings. Of the top-10 in innings pitched, only Tim Hudson and Randy Johnson boast more impressive ERA-plus figures. Nobody is younger. How do you argue with that record? Second in innings pitched, a 122 ERA-plus and younger than anyone else in the top-10 for innings pitched since 2001.
Line him up with Barry Zito, who was awarded a 7-year, $126 million dollar contract by the San Francisco Giants last off-season, and they are virtually indistinguishable from a statistical standpoint. Zito had a Cy Young Award to his credit, a few more strikeouts and some Oakland Athletics Moneyball cache. But Buehrle has a World Series ring, and if you were to toss out each player's best and worst season, Buehrle starts to look quite a bit better than Zito (I know, how convenient).
Hampering Buehrle's market value is his poor 2006 season. He had a career low 204 innings pitched, a career low 93 ERA+ and a career low 4.32 K/9. But take a look at where he ranks among MLB pitchers, season by season, according to Baseball Prospectus's VORP (Value Over Replacement Player).
That 2006 season is a clear outlier, and looks like little more than a World Series hangover to me. I have to admit, before digging through some of these numbers I had been lukewarm on Buehrle. To watch a Buehrle start is not to witness the artistry of Johan Santana or the power of The Big Unit, and so he has never left the impression on me that the other pitchers of his quality and stature have. The prospect of my beloved Boston Red Sox parting with one of their premier prospects seemed ludicrous to me. But upon further reflection, what more could you want out of the free agent market for a pitcher? If you are not going to pay up for a 28 year-old left-handed bulldog who takes the ball every fifth day, almost always gives you a shot to win and turns the ball over to the pen deep in the game, then what pitcher will you shell out dough for? A.J. Burnett?
Barry Zito serves as a nice counterpoint to the case I am making now and to that I would respond accordingly. First, $126 million was absurd from the outset. Nobody should give Buehrle or any other free agent pitcher that kind of money. Second, toss out Zito's 2002 season, which occurred five full seasons prior to the one before which he was awarded the enormous contract, and he looks a lot more pedestrian over his career.
Trading a promising prospect or two for three months of Buehrle, his post-season track record and experience, plus an exclusive negotiating window in which to offer him another five years and maybe $75 million or so would be an excellent deal for any contending team in 2007.
Maybe that's why Kenny Williams is reportedly about to extend him.