As Carlos Zambrano Exits, Ol' Reliable Mark Buehrle Stands Alone in Chicago

I posted this over at Midwest Sports Fans this morning, but I wanted to share with the SSS crew as well. (Anything positive the night after facing Bruce Chen, right?)

After hearing about Carlos Zambrano's meltdown last night, and subsequent exit and "retirement", I got to thinking about the Cubs' trio of pitching phenoms from the early 2000s and how disappointing their careers have been while Mark Buehrle, who came up about the same time with much less fanfare, has just continued to take the ball every fifth day; and incredibly, he's had the best career of the bunch.

I recorded a quick podcast - we call them quickcasts - that discusses this (link to mp3 below) but I'll post the entire transcript here as well so you don't have to listen or click over to the post MSF if you don't want to leave SSS.

I figure any time is a good time to show some love for the great Buehrle, right? (Right.)

QuickCast audio:


Last night, Chicago Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano did something that is starting to become such a Chicago Cubs thing to do: he walked out on his teammates.

Like Sammy Sosa before him, Zambrano has gone from a beloved Cubs superstar to an overpaid, underachieving, volatile pariah. And like Sosa, Big Z hasn’t been able to stand the heat…so he showed himself out of the kitchen.

When I heard about Zambrano’s selfish, impetuous act, two thoughts immediately flashed into my mind:

One, this probably, mercifully, signals the end of one of the most star-crossed and disappointing pitching phenom trios in baseball history.

And two, I somehow found a new way to appreciate Mark Buehrle.

Let’s deal with number one first.

In 2003, the trio of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Carlos Zambrano went a combined 45-28 in 94 starts with an average ERA+ of 151.3 and more than a strikeout per inning. They were, simply put, the most fearsome trio of pitchers in Major League Baseball. Prior and Zambrano were both 22. Wood was 26. Finally, there was realistic hope for broken curses on North Side.

I don’t need to rehash the excruciating details of what happened to this trio in the seasons that ensued after Steve Bartman’s unfortunate rise to infamy. Simply put, it would not be an overstatement to call the fall of Wood and Prior one of the more extreme examples of unfulfilled potential in my lifetime as a baseball fan.

Big Z, on the other hand, stayed physically healthy and became the Cubs’ ace. From 2004-2007 he finished in the top 5 of the Cy Young voting three times. He’s won a total of 125 games while never making fewer than 28 starts in a season before last year. He was, I think, one of the 10 or 15 best pitchers of the aughts when you look at his entire body of work.

And Wood and Prior were both considered better than Zambrano. Can you imagine the Cubs’ pitching staff had those two been able to mature into grizzled 200+ inning machines like Zambrano? As a White Sox fan and lifelong Cubs hater, I shudder to think about such a reality.

The problem with Zambrano is that while he stayed physically healthy, his emotional health seemed to deteriorate by the season. Miscast as a #1 starter, the man to whom all pressure goes on a pitching staff, Zambrano routinely melted down. As his meltdowns increased, so too did his ability to confidently and competently take the ball every fifth day for his Cubs.

Zambrano finished fifth in the Cy Young voting in 2007. He made 34 starts. Over the next three seasons Zambrano would start 30, 28, and 20 games. This year he has started 24, but with a career-worst 4.82 ERA. Zambrano has never finished a full season with an ERA over 3.95.

And now, apparently, Zambrano’s career is done. Surely it’s done on the North Side.

With it, gone also are the final vestiges of that once-heralded trio of pitching phenoms that was going to overcome baseball history, billy goats, and Bartman to deliver glory to the partisans of Wrigley. Two thirds of the trio succumbed to injury of the body; one third fell to a failure of the mind.

And then there is Mark Buehrle.

Concurrently with Wood, Zambrano, and Prior pitching their first full seasons in the big leagues (1998, 2002, and 2003, respectively), the team on the south side of the city was breaking in a young, unheralded, soft-tossing lefty who had been a 38th round draft pick. Mark Buehrle unexpectedly went 16-8 with a 3.29 ERA and a league-leading 1.066 WHIP during his first full season in 2001, but then proceeded to pitch progressively worse in 2002 and 2003.

By the time Buehrle posted an underwhelming 14-14 won-loss record in 2003, with a 4.14 ERA, he had become completely lost in the Chicago pitching shuffle due to the exploits of the aforementioned Wrigleyville Trio.

mark-buehrleBut just as the tide turned in 2003 for the Cubs’ young pitchers, so too did it turn for Buehrle. He lowered his ERA and went 16-10 in 2004 before having his career year in 2005. Buehrle went 16-8 with a 3.12 ERA while leading the league in innings pitched for the second straight year. It was his lone top-5 finish in the Cy Young voting.

Oh, and powered by pitching, the White Sox won the World Series, the first in the city of Chicago in over 200 combined seasons of baseball.

Since then, Buehrle has just kept on motoring. He had a down year in 2006 while dealing with the fatigue of the deep playoff run, but he has compensated for any inflated ERAs with his reliability. Since 2001 through this season, a span of 11 seasons, Buehrle has never won fewer than 10 games and never pitched fewer than 200 innings, which he is on pace to do again this year. He has pitched a perfect game, a no-hitter, won two gold gloves, set the MLB record for consecutive batters retired at 45, and is currently in the midst of a team-record streak of consecutive starts allowing 3 or fewer earned runs.  He is also the only player in MLB history to start and save consecutive World Series games.

This year, at the age of 32, Buehrle is having one of his best seasons at a time when his team has needed him the most. The White Sox entered this season proclaiming to be all-in. Unfortunately, many of the White Sox high-priced players have floundered. Not Buehrle. His current ERA of 3.06 would be his career best, as would his .667 winning percentage. Because of Mark Buehrle, the White Sox still have life in the AL Central. Without him? I shudder to consider.

I’ve long thought and argued that Mark Buehrle is one of the most underrated and underappreciated baseball players of the current era. Sure, I’m biased, but the list of accomplishments I’ve spouted off during this quickcast speaks for itself.

What’s ironic is that Buehrle has had such a spectacularly steady career on the south side after starting out in the shadows of burgeoning dominance on the north side. But what makes baseball such a great and fascinating game is that in every respect it is a marathon, not a sprint.

At bats can be marathons. Games can be marathons. Series can be marathons. And certainly seasons and careers are marathons. The second you think you have baseball figured out, the game is quick to flip your expectations 180 degrees.

In the case of Prior and Wood, this expectation flip was tragic in the sports sense of the word. In the case of Zambrano, the expectation flip was perhaps inevitable. And in the case of Buehrle, the expectation flip has been relatively anonymous and nondescript.

The best way I can sum it up is this: way back in 2003, Mark Buehrle was unquestionably the tortoise in the race to Windy City pitching immortality. One by one, the much-heralded hares that toed the rubber in Wrigley have fallen by the way side; and just like in the old children’s tale we all know so well, the tortoise has unexpectedly won the race.

I feel bad for Cubs fans today, looking back on what could have been and what ended up being. And such an ugly, ignominious ending; but one that is perhaps appropriate all things considered. As a baseball fan, I would have liked to have seen the greatness that Wood, Prior, and Zambrano would have produced together, even if the Cubs hater in me would have loathed it.

Mark BuehrleRegardless, I’m just happy that of the four young pitchers who started their big league careers in Chicago back at the turn of the century, the White Sox were the ones who got Mark Buehrle, because he has ended up having the best career of them all. That would have sounded crazy to say at the time, but it’s unquestionable now.

As Rangers manager Ron Washington might say, that’s the way baseball go.

Fellow White Sox fans, today is a good day to stop and appreciate what we’ve had and what we still have in Mark Buehrle. Consistency, reliability, and stability are three of the most underrated traits in a baseball player. Just ask a Cubs fan.

Especially on this day, I’m sure they would agree.

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