A quieter contract year for Buehrle

KANSAS CITY, MO - JULY 18: Starting pitcher Mark Buehrle #56 of the Chicago White Sox pitches during the 1st inning of the game against the Kansas City Royals on July 18, 2011 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

In July of 2007, there were a whole lot of people worked up about Mark Buehrle's impending free agency. I was one of them.

Going through MLBTradeRumors.com's archives from that time brings back some fond memories. Basically, from June 19 through July 9, Buehrle coverage warranted more than one post per day. Up to 10 teams were kicking Buehrle's big-assed tires. Lastings Milledge! Matt Kemp! Extension talks were on! Then broken! Then on again, except the part about the no-trade clause!

During the drama, Buehrle had about three last White Sox starts ever. One of them -- July 2 against Baltimore -- encapsulated why everybody was so concerned. At the time, and the prevailing emotion was wistfulness. The White Sox lineup had six starters with an OPS below .700, and a bullpen that Ozzie Guillen couldn't trust with a 6-2 lead and two outs in the eighth. Right-handed Ryan Bukvich showed everybody why. As the first line of defense, he gave up a wild pitch, a double and a triple, making it a one-run ball game over the course of eight pitches.

Two of those runs were charged to Buehrle, but both were unearned thanks to a Josh Fields error. Then Bobby Jenks and his Baltimore problems blew the save in the ninth. Buehrle worked hard (117 pitches) with nothing to show for it. The Sox dropped to 35-44, 13 1/2 out of first place, and the worse was yet to come.

The all-around suckitude raised the possibility of a complete rebuilding effort, which inspired much public pressure from the "Keep Buehrle" crowd in response. Buehrle had done nothing wrong -- in fact, he threw a no-hitter that April. He was one of the few bright spots while Jose Contreras, the last White Sox starter to receive an extension before Buehrle, was in the midst of the worst stretch of his career. Nobody wanted to be punished for an ill-advised decision elsewhere.

So when Buehrle began hugging teammates in the dugout during a July 8 game against the Twins, followed by a postgame announcement of the extension, there was much rejoicing.

 

Four Julys later, Buehrle remains on autopilot. He lowered his ERA to 3.38 with seven innings of two-run ball against the Royals, and that has been his average performance over the last two months. He's back to underperforming his FIP after a year off in 2010, his velocity hasn't changed much, and he's by far the most enjoyable starter to watch.

Meanwhile, the Sox are said to be at their budget limit, hampered by massive contracts to underachieving teammates. They also have six starters, including four under contract (or team control) for next season. This would be the kind of environment in which a starter on the wrong side of 30 would be ripe for a change of scenery.

And yet there's been remarkably little talk about it. It occasionally comes up, and the answer is the same -- Buehrle says if he continues to keep pitching, he'd like to do it in Chicago if they'd be happy to have him. The Sox say they don't discuss extensions during the season (which is what they said back in 2007).

I just watched Chuck Garfien's "Inside Look" with Buehrle, and even a retrospective of his career lacked a "This Is Your Life!" tone. Garfien asked Buehrle about his future, he gave his stock answer, and that was that.

There are some differences in circumstances. He's 32, not 28. He has 10-and-5 rights, which drastically slows the rumor cycle. The Sox have already shown the desire to retain him once, and Buehrle didn't feel the need to field other offers. Plus, Buehrle has suggested on more than one occasion that he could retire. That's a highly unlikely outcome, but it does lend a que sera, sera attitude to the proceedings.

And then we have Paul Konerko, whose return was considered an inevitability this past winter, even though he was coming off a career year and he had his hometown team interested.

I don't know if a new Buehrle contract is as much of a lead-pipe lock, but the level of certainty seems worlds apart compared to four years ago, and the tension is close to nonexistent.

Star-divide

One old MLBTR post stood out for me in particular:

Ken Davidoff of Newsday says that while the Mets and Yankees are confirmed among the ten interested clubs, neither plans to offer "serious prospects" for Buehrle.  That seems to mean that Lastings Milledge, Philip Humber, Mike Pelfrey, Joba Chamberlain, and Phil Hughes are out.

This is a fun list:

  • Milledge is a Charlotte Knight.
  • Humber is a White Sox starter.
  • Pelfrey bounces between "good" and "problematic."
  • Chamberlain never stuck as a starter, and now he's out with elbow problems.
  • Hughes had a good calendar year, but has battled a dead arm all season.

All of these prospects were big deals at the time, and none of them have developed into a reliable major-league contributor. These are the kinds of situations that explain why Kenny Williams isn't afraid to gut his farm system again and again.

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