Earlier today, the tweets came flying in that the Miami Marlins were one of three teams in the final running for former Chicago White Sox starter Mark Buerhle. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports just tweeted that the Marlins were the winner in the Buerhle sweepstakes, for the cost of four years and $58 million, an average of $14.5 million per season. The Buerhle signing seems to indicate that the team is no longer looking at signing Albert Pujols, who will likely remain a Cardinal.
Buerhle was one of the more coveted starting pitchers on the free agent market this offseason, but the signing reeks of an overpay for me. The deal will cover his age 33-36 seasons, and while Buerhle has been consistently good, he’s not a Cy Young level starter. His career best ERA is 3.12, he’s been worth more than 4.0 fWAR just once in the last six years, and he is absolutely not a strikeout pitcher, with a career rate of just 5.07 per nine innings. Buerhle thrives with his control, walking just 1.99 batters per nine innings over his career. He’s also an absolutely dominant innings eater, pitching over 200 innings in every full season of his career.
My initial reaction was to call the deal an overpay just because of Buerhle’s age. But then, I did some research, and maybe it’s not so bad. If you look at his performance in the prior three seasons, the deal seems appropriate. Buerhle has been worth $15 million and $15.5 million (per Fangraphs) in each of the last three seasons. With a fastball around 85-86 miles per hour, Buerhle isn’t going to be effected too much by his decline, as his strength is where he puts the ball around the plate.
In this day and age, a 3.5 fWAR pitcher should be paid in the neighborhood of $15 million, so the Marlins aren’t going nuts overpaying a career fourth starter. Buerhle will also have his numbers strengthened from switching from the AL Central to the NL East. While the AL Cental isn’t exactly known for terrifying lineups aside from the Tigers, the NL East doesn’t really have much dynamite in it either. Factor in the overall lower talent level in the National League, and you’ve got yourself an increase in production.
Where will Buerhle fit in the Marlins rotation? With this signing, you have to believe that Javier Vazquez won’t be back, and will likely be heading to retirement as rumored during the season. Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez are locks for the top two spots in Miami’s rotation, with Buerhle sliding in at three, and Ricky Nolasco fourth. The fifth starter position will likely be an open competiton between Chris Volstad, Brad Hand and Clay Hensley, none of whom were overly impressive in stints as Marlins starters. That’s a pretty fearsome top four though, and in the pitching-rich NL East, you need a strong top of the rotation to compete.
Many fans are comparing this deal to the one that the Braves gave Derek Lowe four offseasons ago (four years, $60 million), but there are some differences, mainly age. Buerhle will be 36 at the end of the deal. Lowe turned 36 halfway through the first year of his deal. Buerhle also has better control than Lowe (2.24 K:BB for Lowe, 2.48 for Buerhle), and he relies on getting the ground ball less (45.9% career for Buerhle, an eye-popping 62.6% for Lowe). Lowe is also a harder thrower than Buerhle, with a fastball that typically clcoks around 88 miler per hour. Despite his horrendous ERAs, Lowe wasn’t a total disaster for the Braves, combining for 7.8 fWAR over his three years with the club. But he was still overpaid by about $10 million. Buerhle doesn’t offer as substantial a risk as Lowe did.
Now, what does this signing mean for Miami’s pursuit of Albert Pujols? Well, it’s probably over. Yesterday, the Marlins seemed to be the favorite to land Pujols with the ten year deal they offered him. As today wore on though, the lack of a no-trade clause seemed to be lessening Miami’s chances of bringing him south, and this signing appears to put the nail in that coffin. Despite the probable lack of Pujols, the Marlins are apparently still firmly invested in CJ Wilson and Prince Fielder. Signing Wilson would just be absurd, as it would give the Marlins a five man rotation that would be one of the best in the league. Fielder would make sense too, and signing him would allow a trade of incumbent first baseman Gaby Sanchez in an attempt to fill another hole on the team. The Chicago Cubs were apparently linked to interest in Sanchez. The Winter Meetings are now in full swing, and it’s truly a beautiful thing.