On Wednesday, free agent southpaw Mark Buehrle agreed to terms with the Miami Marlins on a four-year contract. According to ESPN‘s sources, Buerhle’s new contract is worth $58 million.
Earlier today Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post reported that Buehrle narrowed his list of potential destinations to three teams– the Marlins, Nationals and Yankees. According to MASN.com, Buehrle turned down three-year, $45 million offers from both the Nationals and Yankees before signing with Miami. Spending the entirety of his thirteen-year professional baseball career in the White Sox organization, the lefthander became a free agent after completing the final season of his previous deal; a four-year $56 million dollar contract he signed with Chicago in ’08.
Buerhle’s contract further fuels the Marlins’ offseason-long streak of aggressive free agent spending. Throughout the past few weeks, Miami has signed three of this winter’s top four free agents. One of the poorest teams in baseball, the Marlins’ team payroll has never exceeded $60.4 million yet they’ve now committed $191 million to the salaries of Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle and Heath Bell.
Though it’s extremely difficult to forecast the return on most big league free agent signings, particularly in the case of starting pitchers, Buerhle’s contract is a fairly safe bet. Unlike most pitchers, Buerhle’s health and productivity haven’t withered with age. He annually ranks among the top pitchers in the game in innings pitched, wins above replacement (WAR) and walks-allowed per nine innings. A finesse-lefty in the mold of Jim Kaat, Buerhle holds the ingredients for a long, successful career. Similar to his soft-tossing, southpaw counterparts, Buerhle uses his veteran experience to hone his game and improve as gets older.
Remarkably consistent, Buerhle has posted a fWAR of 3.4 or better in ten of his eleven seasons as an MLB starter. Though he generally doesn’t throw harder than 88-89 MPH, Buerhle’s veteran savvy and impeccable command allow him to succeed despite a pedestrian repertoire. While other big league starters hit a wall somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 career IP, Buerhle has managed to improve his performance after the 1,500 innings mark. In terms of fielder-independent-pitching (FIP) — one of the best statistical measure’s of a pitcher’s real on-field contribution — Buerhle’s career 4.13 mark ranks fourth among active lefthanders who’ve pitched more than 1,500 innings. However, unlike many of the other top arms in the game, three of Buerhle’s best seasons have come after age twenty-nine.
While his career line doesn’t boast numbers you’d expect from a prototypical ace, as his baseball card reads light on strikeouts and heavy on hits-allowed, Buerhle is one of the best when it comes to consistently putting his club in the position to succeed. Much like Jim Kaat, he’s an all-around talent who contributes in all facets of the game. His pitching IQ and polished command allows him to limit baserunners and smother rallies. Armed with the game’s most feared pick-off move and as one of the best fielding pitchers, he’s extraordinarily effective at holding baserunners and inducing double-plays.
With a dearth of veteran lefthanded pitchers on the current market, four years of annual-200-innings-pitched, 4.00-FIP baseball is a relative bargain for $58 million. Pursued by the Nationals, Yankees, Marlins and numerous other clubs, Buerhle’s talent is a valuable commodity and he should provide invaluable pitching-staff stability.
Though the additions of Reyes and Bell will provide a valuable boost for the Marlins, slotting Buerhle into the pitching rotation could prove to be the ballclub’s most important improvement. Miami’s ace, Josh Johnson, managed just 60 innings in ’11 and missed a chunk of 2010 nursing back and shoulder injuries. Like Johnson, the team’s other starters, Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco and Chris Volstad, have top-shelf potential but often struggle with inconsistency and injuries. Adding Buerhle to the mix, however, transforms Miami’s talented-but-thin rotation in to one of the National League’s most formidable.
Another benefit of adding Buerhle to the Marlin’s clubhouse lays in his strong working relationship with newly-signed manager Ozzie Guillen. Buerhle spent eight seasons pitching under Guillen in Chicago, and he played a vital role on the White Sox ’05 championship team. At this year’s Winter Meetings, Guillen spoke highly of the thirty-two-year-old southpaw.
For a historically poor team like the Marlins, who’ve rated at the bottom of the Major Leagues in annual attendance and revenue for the past five years, a relatively safe-signing like that of Buerhle provides a stable veteran backbone for their future. The pitcher has proven remarkably consistent throughout his career and he’s found plenty of success under Ozzie Guillen. With so much invested in Jose Reyes, an oft-injured player who’s skillset centers around his declining speed, a steady-though-unspectacular, sure-thing like Buerhle should help diversify the Marlins expensive portfolio of free agent investments.
Adding Buerhle’s salary to the team’s already franchise-record payroll likely concludes the Marlins’ pursuit of free agent slugger Albert Pujols. Pujols, the National League’s top player from 2005-2010 (according to rWAR), holds a career .420 on-base percentage and he’s one of the top hitters in baseball history. While Pujols would’ve been a more valuable addition to the Marlins than Reyes, Bell or Buerhle, his wallet-busting ($200+ million) price tag proved to be too much to handle. In the end, the Marlins probably made the right decision. Risking that much of their budget on Pujols alone rather than using it to address three of their needs would’ve been extremely risky.