While the Jays were able to mount an epic comeback on Monday night after Mark Buehrle gave up seven runs to the Rays, that sort of offensive firepower is not the sort of run support Buehrle can expect in every start. Monday marked the fifth time in seven starts this season that Buehrle that Buehrle gave up five runs or more. Normally if a pitcher is performing consistently at this level you would try him in the bullpen or even assign him to the minors, however when that pitcher is owed $48 million over the next three seasons those options become much less palatable.
Most of the time Blue Jay’s GM Alex Anthopoulos is lauded for being able to dump Vernon Wells and his bloated contract on the Angels it seems he may have picked up something similar in Buehrle in his deal with the Marlins. Obviously the Wells contract, which had four years and $85 million remaining on it, was a much bigger burden than what the Jay’s picked up in Buehrle. There are however other factors besides the money to take into consideration when looking at how much a contract burdens a team.
One reason Wells received such a lucrative deal was because of his performance at a premium defensive position. As Wells defensive abilities have declined he has found himself in left field, while this makes him theoretically less valuable it also allows that position to be occupied by a higher WAR player, similarly he can be moved around in the batting order to come up in less crucial situation or less often in general.
In Buehrle’s case however it doesn’t matter which rotation spot he holds, none of them provide any leeway for regression the way defensive placement or batting ninth can. Even in Well’s worst days with the Jays, or Angels for that matter, no matter how many high fastballs he whiffed on, or how many times he popped up to the infield, none of those actions would put the club down 5 runs.
Therein lies the real problem with Buehrle. Moving to the American League East after a career in the AL Central and one year in the NL East Buehrle has seen a spike in his home run rate, on pace to give up 52 long balls over the course of the season. This is well over his previous career high of 36 allowed in a season, and more than double his career average of 24.6 home runs per season. This is a troubling trend for any pitcher on the wrong side of 30 regardless of what type of money is owed them.
The question that really needs to be asked though. Is the money the Jays owe Buehrle only well spent if he is successful? One can argue that taking on Buehrle and fellow overpay Jose Reyes from the Marlins, the Jays not only bought the services of those players (and Josh Johnson), but also bought the club relevance. Without picking up the contract of Buehrle would the club have gotten a chance to sign Melky Cabrera or lock up the reigning Cy Young winner for only $30 million. These team friendly deals that the Jays handed out could in theory cancel out the bad value on Buehrle’s contract making it easier to stomach. And even if his effectiveness has been questionable so far this season, Buehrle’s true calling card throughout his career has been his durability and consistency, for any club hoping to contend innings need to get eaten and how much is it worth having someone who you know should be able to do that for you?
While his ERA sits at an ugly 7.02 Buehrle has still been pitching fairly deep in the games, and although pitching like garbage for 7 inning is less than ideal, somebody needs to pitch those innings. Even with his homer happy tendencies it won’t seem to have a dramatic impact on bullpen usage, as believe it or not despite his rocky start,with troubling signs of decline and adjusting to a new division, Buehrle is still the model of consistency on pace for 195 innings. As long as you have no one clearly better to pitch those innings Buehrle is still a valuable cog on the 25 man roster. However if the money he is owed results in him blocking a young pitcher who could be more effective from pitching the picture becomes a little murkier as to what value he can provide.
Will Buehrle and his contract become nothing but a burden on the team, or will he be a valuable fixture in the rotation logging innings and always remembered for being a part of the franchise changing trade? Only time (and home runs) will tell.