With free agents able to sign with new teams come tomorrow, you can expect that the Hot (and Lukewarm) Stove will be kicking into high gear over the next few weeks, and continuing on into January.

One of the Cubs’ greatest needs this Winter, as indicated by incoming GM Jed Hoyer, will be starting pitching. Even with the return of Ryan Dempster, who picked up his $14 million option for 2012, the Cubs’ rotation looks a bit like Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, and three question marks. Carlos Zambrano’s return is very much in doubt, Randy Wells’ effectiveness is similarly in doubt, and Andrew Cashner’s health is – you guessed it – in doubt. Other internal options – Jeff Samardzija, Casey Coleman, Jay Jackson, Trey McNutt – come with their own share of questions.

Indeed, it seems likely that, if the Cubs hope to have a deeper, more effective rotation next year, the free agent and trade markets will have to be heavily scoured.

One free agent who will potentially draw interest from the Cubs is cross-town rival, Mark Buehrle.

According to a source, the Cubs will be interested in the lefty if the price tag is not “astronomical.” Of course, when isn’t that true?

Buehrle has never been a Cubs’ fan favorite, primarily for being an unabashed White Sox and Cardinals’ homer – which, incidently, is a reason to doubt he’d come to the Cubs, given the other options he’ll have.

Setting that aside,¬†Buehrle¬†is an attractive free agent candidate for a rotation lacking consistency. At 32 (33 next year), Buehrle is coming off his fifth straight 100 ERA+ or better season. Indeed, he’s had just one sub-100 season (meaning, below average) in his entire career. Since becoming a full-time starter at age 22, he’s never thrown fewer than 200 innings in a season. He also just collected his third straight Gold Glove.

But, while Buehrle is something of a model of consistency, let’s be clear: he’s no ace. He is consistently above average, but consistently below great. His numbers are also trending in the wrong direction, with BB/9 holding steady, but K/9 falling consistently over the last four years. He would fit into almost any rotation in baseball, but he isn’t going to anchor any staffs. He’ll take the ball every fifth day, and most of the time, he’ll give the team a chance to win.

So, what’s “astronomical” for a guy like that? Buehrle has, himself, said he wants to play only another two or three years, so I’d say astronomical – in years – starts at four. In dollars, it’s hard to see a reliable but uninspiring 33-year-old pitcher being worth more than $10 million per year. When Ted Lilly re-signed with the Dodgers last year, he got three years at an average of $11 million per year. He was a year older than Buehrle will be, but he had also been much more effective in the preceding two years.

If Buehrle commands that kind of deal, I’m not sure the Cubs will be interested. A two year deal, or an annual figure closer to $8 or 9 million? They’d be interested.

But, then again, so would a lot of teams.



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