If you asked 100 White Sox fans to name the pitcher who best represents the White Sox since the turn of the 21st century, you would get 100 responses of “Mark Buehrle.” In his 12 seasons on the South Side, Buehrle has posted 45.9 fWAR, a 161-119 win loss record and a 3.83 ERA. Buehrle has been the absolute model of consistency, throwing at least 201 innings every year since 2001, and at least 3.4 fWAR in ten of the last eleven seasons. He also just entered free agency.
In my opinion, Buehrle should be the Cubs’ number one free agency priority this offseason. Looking over the next couple of seasons, one of the biggest problems the Cubs have is a lack of clear starting pitching talent in the upper minors. Trey McNutt is the Cubs’ top pitching prospect, but he has control issues and needs to find a pitching motion he can repeat more consistently. Jay Jackson had a bad first three quarters of 2011 with reduced velocity before having a strong last month and a half of the season. If his velocity does not return, the odds of him being a Major League starter are slim. Robert Whitenack is going to miss most of next season after undergoing Tommy John surgery midway through last season. After that, the cupboard is pretty bare in the high minors.
The Cubs need starting pitching help, and not just for 2012. If Carlos Zambrano is with the Cubs next season, he certainly will not be in 2013. Ryan Dempster’s contract ends after this season as well, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see him return to the Cubs at a discounted rate to finish his career with the team. It is not clear if the Cubs see Andrew Cashner’s future in the rotation or the bullpen. The Cubs need pitchers they can count on to throw 200 innings year in and year out behind Matt Garza.
Buehrle may be 33 on opening day next season, but he is about as safe a bet as a pitcher over age 30 could be. Buehrle has never thrown hard, with a fastball in the mid-80s. Instead, he found success with a sweeping cutter, a strong change up, excellent control and being the best fielding pitcher since Greg Maddux. He’s a minimum effort pitcher whose pitching tools are unlikely to leave him as he goes through his mid-30s. Buehrle is not an ace who you bring in to lead your rotation (he honestly never was), but he has strong odds of being a solid middle of the rotation pitcher for several years yet.
A set of coincidences has made the Cubs a potentially attractive destination to Buehrle. Buehrle has spent his whole career with the White Sox and is from the St. Louis area. He would almost certainly give the White Sox and Cardinals the first two shots to bring him in. But the White Sox probably do not have the money to keep Buehrle, while the Cardinals will almost certainly not have any money to add significant free agents if they re-sign Albert Pujols. That means the two teams that Buehrle would give preferential treatment to are probably closed off to him.
The idea of being able to stay in Chicago might appeal greatly to Buehrle. And while the Cubs do not look like a contender for 2012, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer might be able to sell Buehrle on the team’s potential for 2013 and 2014. Personally, I’d love to see Buehrle penciled in the third spot of the Cubs’ rotation for the next three years. If I were Theo, I would be willing to go as high as 4 years and $48 million. I do know that if I were a betting man, I would be much more willing to put money down on the idea of Buehrle being a 3+ WAR pitcher through his age 36 season than betting on C.J. Wilson being able to continue his recent health and success. The Cubs need help in the starting rotation, and Buehrle is a great bet to be worth what he will earn on the open market and more.