Even though Mark Buehrle isn’t exactly the front-end starter that the Toronto Blue Jays need to compete, it should go without saying that he’ll play a key part in the team’s potential success as long as their window of contention is open.
After last season, however, whether that window is even there at this point is seriously in doubt. Sure, they’ve got a core on paper that looks like it should compete, but it’s not without its holes, and the starting rotation is once again a beaten, battered mess where strength in numbers at the back-end is about the only thing it has going for it.
The veteran Buehrle would certainly do his share in stabilizing that just as he’d done throughout most of his career, except there’s only one problem: he’ll be doing it as the team’s highest-paid player.
See, thanks to a substantial salary jump in his back-loaded contract signed with the Miami Marlins, the lefty will be paid a whopping $19 million (including a $1 million signing bonus) for the upcoming season. According to Baseball Prospectus’ list of current Blue Jays under payroll (15 players), that makes up a whopping 15.91 percent of the current $119.5 million committed to players.
Needless to say, that’s ace money even in today’s market for starting pitchers, which means that while Buehrle actually outperformed his contract with a 2.5 fWAR season in 2013 (he made a total of $12 million that year), the chances of him going so again for the final two years of his contract are not very good.
As if that wasn’t enough of a concern, the southpaw’s salary goes up by yet another million in 2015, which only exacerbates the issue as that’s legitimately money that could otherwise be spent on an actual ace for the rotation. Moreover, if the Blue Jays aren’t actually able to contend in 2014, is that money that the team will want to keep spending?
It sure wouldn’t seem like it given the way that GM Alex Anthopoulos has approached player contracts in the past, which is to say that Buehrle’s time with the team could very well end prior to the end of the 2014 season.
Moving him would be a challenge of its own, of course, as the Blue Jays would likely have to eat a chunk of money to have another team take him off their hands, even though he’s perfectly productive as a middle-of-the-rotation innings eater. Whether the team would actually get anything useful back is doubtful, but if they could get the Buehrle that put up a 3.18/1.31 ERA/WHIP over 87.2 IP in the second half of 2012, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Making such a move, especially if he’s putting up decent numbers, would only happen if the team was struggling; while there’s probably an argument to be made that moving Buehrle’s salary as soon as possible would free up room for the team to acquire other pieces that can help them compete, that’s a possibility that would only happen if the best-case scenario takes place with the plethora of back-end options that the Blue Jays will carry.
In short, like it or not, an overpaid Buehrle is what the team will have to deal with as long as they’re still in the mix.
If not, however, you could expect that the veteran will be the first player moved as Anthopoulos will have to make tough decisions about the team’s core — and by that point, whether Buehrle is playing up to his contract or not will be moot.