Before Blogs: The sudden ascent of Mark Buehrle

Two years ago, Daniel Hudson joined the White Sox roster in September, completing a five-level climb in which he aced every minor-league stop along the way.

Compared to Chris Sale's path, though, Hudson was stuck on the local. Sale's express lane took him from the draft to the 25-man roster in a mere 58 days. More incredibly, depending on whether Jake Peavy is ready, Sale may own a spot in a major-league rotation, even if it's only temporary, without ever making a start in the minors.

While these stories are rare, one of their teammates has a rapid rise that beats them both. For the last 10 years, the White Sox staff has been led by a guy whose minor league career can be summed up in two lines:

Year Age Tm Lg Lev Aff W L W-L% ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO HBP BK WP WHIP SO/BB
1999 20 Burlington MIDW A CHW 7 4 .636 4.10 20 14 98.2 105 49 45 8 16 91 5 6 3 1.226 5.69
2000 21 Birmingham SOUL AA CHW 8 4 .667 2.28 16 16 118.2 95 37 30 8 17 68 10 0 1 0.944 4.00
2 Seasons 15 8 .652 3.11 36 30 217.1 200 86 75 16 33 159 15 6 4 1.072 4.82

Yes, Mark Buehrle only pitched 217 1/3 innings in the White Sox system before joining the Sox in July of 2000. He pitched seven innings of two-run baseball in his first major-league start in place of Cal Eldred, who blew out his elbow. Two rougher starts afterward showed he might have bit off a little more than he could chew, but he kept his footing on the roster after sticking as a left-handed setup man and occasional long reliever. He started the following season in the rotation, where he rose from David Wells' ashes to become the staff ace.

Looking at his history, I had the same question that came to me when looking at Warren Newson's career -- how would we have covered it on South Side Sox or the late, great Sox Machine?

My best guess? We probably would have been a little late to the game as well.

Draft

For Chicagoland teens, Mark Buehrle's pre-professional mythology is second only to Michael Jordan's for a good never-give-up story. We all know the basics -- he was a draft-and-follow pick in the 38th round from Jefferson College in Missouri, the only school that recruited him. Before then, he couldn't make the Francis Howell North High roster as a sophomore, and thought about not even bothering as a junior.

This automatically makes his story more implausible than Hudson's or Sale's. Everybody knew Sale packed major-league heat, and led some to wonder why more college pitchers weren't fast-tracked. Hudson was a bigger surprise, but he was still a fifth-round pick, and his stock had fallen in his final collegiate season at Old Dominion. It was shocking that he regrouped so soon and so successfully, but had he entered the draft a year earlier, he might not have been a sleeper.

Buehrle's draft-and-follow status makes it even harder to imagine, since Major League Baseball effectively ended the practice in 2007. The Sox drafted Buehrle in June of 1998, but didn't sign him until May 21, 1999. Under today's rules, the Sox would have had to make up their minds nine months earlier.

It's safe to say we wouldn't have followed Buehrle right away. In the SSS era, here are the players selected by the Sox in the 38th round:

Of those six players, only Salgado and Escolano signed. Neither impressed in their first turn at Bristol, and one turn is all Escolano got. We know Petricka chose the collegiate route, and so did the others.

It's also worth knowing that Monroe is the son of Larry Monroe, the White Sox director of major league scouting, and he was selected two rounds after they chose Oney Guillen. Yes, Buehrle was selected firmly in the traditional White Sox Nepotism Zone, so we probably wouldn't have thought much of it -- especially since we didn't have an immediate signing deadline to pay attention to.

I'm guessing we would have started keeping tabs after he signed for $167,000 the following May. That's fifth-round money now -- that's the Hudson round, and it also gave us Brandon Allen, Nathan Jones and, best of all, Andy Gonzalez. We pay attention to fifth-round picks.

1999

The Chicago papers didn't pay attention to him in 1999 -- a search of the archives only turns up two articles, and both from suburban papers covering Buehrle's lone start against the Kane County Cougars, during the Midwest League semifinals on Sept. 11.

The Daily Herald did foreshadow some serious interest in Buehrle from his bosses:

There's nothing like the presence of a major-league general manager to set minor-league britches on fire.

With White Sox GM Ron Schueler and player-development director Kenny Williams on hand Saturday at Elfstrom Stadium, White Sox affiliate Burlington recovered from Friday's 12-0 loss to Kane County to defeat the Cougars 6-4. [...]

Burlington lefty Mark Buehrle watched Kane County score 10 runs in the first inning Friday in Iowa, then gave up 5 hits and 3 runs in 7 innings before a crowd of 1,556 Saturday. Buehrle got 10 hits and all 6 runs of support from a team that managed just 3 hits the night before. A team with some pride on the line. [...]

Buehrle had not pitched against the Cougars in 1999, but that wasn't as important as the three off-speed pitches he threw, or Kane County's lack of adjustment. He fanned four and walked one, picked off a runner, and stranded two runners at second.

From the Aurora Beacon News' account:

Buehrle , who was 7-4 during the regular season and had not faced the Cougars until Saturday, was lifted in the eighth in favor of Bob Purvis after surrendering a single (Dave Callahan), double (Heath Kelly) and walk (Chris Aguila) to load the bases with a 6-1 lead. [...]

"The kid pitched a real good ballgame and we tip our caps to him," said Cougars' skipper Rick Renteria, who was upbeat after the game. "He kept us off-balance and kept his pitches down." [...]

"I knew I had to come out here and throw strikes and keep them off-balance with my off-speed pitches," Buehrle said. "I was getting a little tired in the eighth ... and maybe a little more relaxed with a 6-1 lead. Our relievers came in and did the job."

(Aside: Reading these recaps makes me angry that the Sox left the Midwest League.)

Educated guess:
Top 10 prospects, 1999

Joe Crede
Jon Garland
Aaron Myette
Jon Rauch
Lorenzo Barcelo
Kip Wells
Josh Fogg
Aaron Rowand
Mark Buehrle
McKay Christensen

Buehrle was called the Sox's Best Non-Draft Sign by Baseball America, and I'm guessing that would have helped him sneak onto the bottom of a Top 10 list, based on having that strikeout-to-walk ratio as a 20-year-old. Obviously, some other aspects of his game needed work -- for instance, I snorted and thought of Joe West when I saw the six balks.

Trying to draw a current minor-league comparison, I'm thinking Andre Rienzo. Rienzo's not at all like Buehrle in terms of age (a year and a half older), background (international signing from that baseball powerhouse known as Brazil), and stuff (right-hander with power). Developmentally, they might be at the same stage, as Rienzo broke out in a big way at Kannapolis last year in his first full season.

Now, imagine Jake Peavy's arm explodes in July, and the Sox call on Rienzo to make a few emergency starts before keeping him in the bullpen the rest of the season. That would be just a little bit surprising, wouldn't it?

That's basically what happened to Buehrle in 2000.

2000

Buehrle turned heads in his first spring training. Some fun quotes from a Daily Herald story from Feb. 26, 2000:

"It's something I've always had," Buehrle said of his ability to throw strikes. "When I was little, my mom and dad would take me to carnivals and I was always hitting things. People used to stop and watch me and they couldn't believe it."

Buehrle is inexperienced, but the Sox are not shy about taking chances with young players anymore.

"I really like the way he's been throwing," Manuel said. "The key is finding out if he can perform in places like Chicago and Texas. That's a lot different than throwing here. But if he is able to do that, why waste his ability in the minor leagues?"

Manuel was on to something. Buehrle's name was mentioned as a possible replacement in May, but the Sox opted in favor of Kip Wells, who still had problems throwing strikes. He wouldn't have to wait long.

Buehrle got his break thanks to Jesus Pena's big mouth. Pena's actually one notch below Jose Paniagua and Sean Tracey when it comes to dishonorable discharges, demoted after giving up three runs in the final inning of a 15-7 loss to the Cardinals on July 15.

Besides the ugly line, Pena's problems were twofold. He threw at Eduardo Perez after both benches were warned in the fifth inning, and Manuel didn't call for it. He compounded the problem by saying after the game, according to a Chicago Sun-Times article from July 17, "I tried to hit him in the head. After we got two outs, I said the next guy is going down."

And all of a sudden, the Sox bullpen was lacking a lefty to pair with Kelly Wunsch. Buehrle entered, and he still hasn't left.

On top of taking Pena's job, he also took an opportunity away from Lorenzo Barcelo. The Sox originally planned on giving a start to each rookie in Eldred's absence, but Buehrle pitched so well against the Twins that he pushed Barcelo out of the picture for a month. Meanwhile, Pena wouldn't resurface until September, where he appeared in one game before the Sox traded him to Boston.

First guessing, hindsight removed

I'm trying to figure out what I would've been thinking had I followed the farm system as closely as I do now -- and if we had the tools to evaluate. His outstanding walk rate would probably lead me to believe he was worth a shot, but his unremarkable strikeout rate and so-so fastball would lead me to expect a demotion in relatively short order. With guys like Barcelo, Jon Garland and Rocky Biddle all competing for playing time, the Sox could certainly afford to take their time with Buehrle.

Instead, the 21-year-old Buehrle was forcing guys off the roster, and he and the Sox ensured that he'd never have to return to the minors. If I had the opportunity to sit down with Buehrle for 10 minutes, I'd love to ask him about what happened from that start in Kane County through July. As well as he pitched, especially for his age, it still seems like he would've had to have some strong advocates. Whatever the case, the Sox pushed their unheralded lefty through the system at lightning speed, and have reaped the rewards ever since.

Dan Hudson's story was supposed to end the same way, but instead, he's writing that chapter in Arizona. In Schueler's last year, the Sox were willing to try their hand with young starters -- at one point, the average age of the rotation was under 25.

That's not the case now, as the Sox seem to invariably choose the price of experience over the stumbles of cheaper youth. Hudson was practically a victim of his own success, creating so much buzz that disappointment was almost inevitable, and it leads to another interesting question: If Buehrle were making his way through the minors in 2010 instead of 2000, would he be pitching for a different organization in 2011?

Thank goodness we never have to answer that, and let's hope it's only a hypothetical for Chris Sale, too.

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