For much of the first half of the 2015 season, Mark Buehrle was the only sure thing in the Toronto Blue Jays rotation. Aaron Sanchez and Drew Hutchison struggled, R.A. Dickey sought consistency, Marcus Stroman was injured, Marco Estrada had not yet fully emerged, and David Price still pitched for the Detroit Tigers. Buehrle was the veteran leader of the staff, and posted a very solid 3.34 ERA before the All-Star break. Most of that low ERA, however, came about as a result of very good fortune in June and July. The 36-year-old left-hander posted a 1.78 ERA in 10 starts across those two months. Now, on October 1, Buehrle holds a 14-7 record with a 3.76 ERA.
Buehrle was phenomenal for two months of the year. The rest of the year, however, has been a different story. Minus June and July, Buehrle has an ERA over 5.00 for the season with a 5.75 ERA in four September starts. With the late season struggles, Buehrle will fail to crack 200 innings for the first time since becoming a full-time starter in 2001. With the rest of the rotation firing on all cylinders, where does that leave Buehrle?
At this point in his career, Buehrle has been reduced to a soft-tossing, pitch-to-contact type even more so than he was earlier in his career. Opponents have batted .298 against him since the All-Star break, and he is not missing many bats. Buehrle has struck out only 3.5 per nine since the second half of the season began. All of this begs the question, what value does Buehrle bring to the Blue Jays come the playoffs?
Most teams do not go with a five-man rotation in the postseason with the fifth starter moving to the bullpen. With days off and a must-win mentality, there is no reason to give the fifth starter the ball when your ace can come back a day early. Buehrle is certainly not getting starts ahead of Stroman who has been phenomenal since returning from the disabled list. Dickey, too, has been outstanding in the second half, and his knuckleball presents an element that can leave teams in an offensive funk for another game after his start. Would Buehrle be more than a long man out of the bullpen? With the game on the line in the seventh or eighth inning, John Gibbons would not consider handing the ball to a pitcher who is nearly incapable of getting a strikeout.
The ALDS is a five-game series. Buehrle would not start a game even if the series went all the way to the brink. He becomes slightly more valuable in a seven-game series, but only if the Blue Jays see one of their starters smacked around and need him to come in and eat a few innings. If that’s his only value to the team, could Gibbons be better off keeping an extra bat on his bench?
That’s a difficult question to answer. Buehrle is a 16-year veteran and has done a lot for the Blue Jays in his three years in Toronto. For two months of the year, he was the pitcher holding their rotation together. He is still a veteran presence, and this may be his final chance to pitch in the playoffs. Buehrle has been hinting at retirement for a few years now and his contract is up at the end of the year. The Blue Jays may feel they owe it to Buehrle to include him on the postseason roster. If that’s the only thing keeping Buehrle on the 25-man, the Blue Jays need to take a long, hard look at whether that is really the best move going into the first foray into the playoffs since 1993.
The Blue Jays went all-in for 2015 with an aggressive, take-no-prisoners mentality. Would that mindset allow them to leave a 16-year veteran and all-around good guy off the postseason roster? It would certainly seem that way. There is only so much room for sentimentality in baseball, and at the end of the day, Buehrle should understand that. But for two months of the season, he has been a well below average starting pitcher with very little value added out of the bullpen. The Blue Jays are going to have to make a difficult decision when it comes to Mark Buehrle’s inclusion on their postseason roster.