More Thoughts on the Buerhle contract.

When I left this continent for the one where cheese, wine, and soccer are more important than baseball, Buerhle’s contract was in the works but not yet signed.  In my last column I speculated that on a 4 year deal he would be worth 59-65 million dollars.
The White Sox signed him for 56 million, so it looks like they got a little bargain.  The reaction among baseball’s “thinking fans” seems a bit mixed.  Some  strongly disapprove, a horrible signing.  Others think it worked out pretty well for the White Sox.  A big difference in the two opinions is who you project Buerhle’s workload going forward.  There’s no chance he increases his workload, which is about as high as any pitcher has handled in recent years.  He might keep pitching 230 innings per year, he might decline a little, or he might get hurt and pitch very little despite not showing any injury so far.
I don’t know what the best way to get comparables is.  In the last column I looked at free agent pitchers who teams were willing to part with draft picks for – in other words pretty good pitchers.  I came up with 180 innings to expect for next year, but couldn’t look at a 4 year projection because I was looking at recent signings.
I tried another approach:  To control for both quality and durability, I looked at pitchers who pitched after 1970 (lets keep the pre-Tommy John and certainly the deadball pitchers out of comparables) who had 75 or more wins (Buerhle had 97) through age 27.  There were 60 such pitchers.  Then, exclude current players like Barry Zito (What Zito does in 2009 might be useful to know for Buerhle, but I don’t know what it is).  Finally, I make sure that the pitcher hasn’t already started to show arm problems.  To stay in the group, they must pitch at least 200 innings at age 28.  All indications are that Buerhle, having a fine season, will do so himself.  In any case, he has shown no performance or health problems during the 2007 season so far.
The innings I get for the years covered by the contract are:
2008  180
2009  172
2010  152
2011  137
The results are closer to Chris Dial’s group than David Gassko’s.
Just because we can’t guaranty, or even expect, that Buerhle will throw 230 innings like usual does not mean that this is a bad deal.  If he pitches 180 innings at his usual rate, he is worth almost 4 wins above a replacement pitcher.  It turns out Kenny Williams is paying him like he expects only a 3.5 win pitcher, if you adjst the salary calculator  for inflation (10%).  For the further decline in innings, well, the calculator assumes that the player will decline by 0.5 wins per year, but every year there is more and more inflation.
The White Sox got a pretty good deal in the context of what teams pay for free agents.  They likely would not do better by saving their money and buying something else this offseason.  One more thing about the salary calculator:  If we knew that Buerhle would pitch 230 innings every year, and do it with at the top of his ability (say a 130 ERA+) then he would be worth 5.5 wins per year (he’s had 4 years like that in his career) he would be worth over 20 million per season.
You might make the argument that regardless of what teams pay, he’s not worth that much revenue to the White Sox.  And you might be right.  You’d also have to say that average-ish pitchers like Ted Lilly and Gil Meche are not worth 10-11 million, and that free agent pitchers should be avoided.  It may be best, financially, to be like the Pirates, spend little, win 70 games, and milk the revenue sharing.   I kind of prefer teams that actually try to win though.  Good move, Mr. Williams.

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