Talk concerning free-agent starting pitchers originally centered on CC Sabathia, who elected to stay with the Yankees through a one-year, $25-million contract extension. The buzz then shifted to C.J. Wilson, a 30-year-old southpaw who has two highly successful years in the Rangers' rotation following five seasons in the bullpen. Gritty veteran Roy Oswalt has been mentioned as has young fireballer Edwin Jackson.
What to do then if you're just a soft-tossing southpaw that takes the ball every fifth day for a decade?
"What Mark has achieved over his career is easy to take for granted because he's so remarkably consistent," Jeff Berry, co-head of CAA Sports and Buehrle's long-time representative, told MLB.com. "He's just 32 years old, and every year, like clockwork, he makes all of his starts, throws 200-plus innings and posts double-digit wins.
"That rare combination of consistent and quality production is hard to find."
Of course, Berry gets paid to make that case, but the numbers bear him out. From 2001 to 2011, Buehrle ranks first in the Majors with 362 games started. Sabathia sits third at 355. Buehrle's 2,425 1/3 innings stand as more than any other hurler during that period, with Sabathia checking in second. And Buehrle's 230 quality starts, a total extended by Buehrle's 18 straight starts allowing three runs or fewer during the 2011 season, place him No. 1 and four ahead of Sabathia. His 80 pickoffs and 274 induced double plays also are greater than anyone else during his run.
No one is calling him elite, and his raw stuff doesn't inspire awe, but for 10 years he's found a way to be effective.
"He has to be really fine with his control and his command," one scout said of Buehrle. "Being his stuff is not overpowering, if he's not right on, he's going to get hit. He's definitely better than a .500 pitcher if a team scores runs.
"Let's put it this way. He hasn't changed much. His velocity dropped 2 or 3 mph. But velocity is overrated. If you can't pitch, command the strike zone and change speeds, you are going to get hit.
"What I like about him the most is he gets it and throws it and makes no excuses. Buehrle does what he's supposed to do. He's a true professional, a great guy and a team leader. There's nothing better than someone who goes out and battles and doesn't make excuses. I would love to have him on our team."
Even though Buerhle is coming off a solid 13-9 season with a 3.59 ERA pitching in a hitter-friendly home stadium, a return to the South Side is uncertain. The club has a new manager, a new direction and a solid core of young starters in Chris Sale, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Philip Humber. Jake Peavy will be back, as well, and Zach Stewart or Dylan Axelrod stand ready in reserve.
So at this point, the White Sox will wait to see what the market is for Buehrle. Once the market is set for him, the White Sox will look to see if he fits into both their plan and budget. General manager Kenny Williams readily acknowledged that replacing Buehrle would be a significant void to fill, both as a pitcher and as a person. Pitching coach Don Cooper echoed that sentiment.
"I've been lucky to do this for a long time, and if there's one guy that I point to that's helped me do this, it would be him," said Cooper of Buehrle, with the two having worked together since 2002. "It's going to be a hole to fill if he's not back. And again, that's a 200-inning hole.
"It's not easy to find somebody walking around and say, 'Hey, here's a guy that can throw 200 innings.' We're going to have to work for that, but there's so much more than that for me."
Buehrle is a knowledgeable and crafty pitcher, first and foremost, aided by a defensive component resulting in three straight Rawlings Gold Gloves. But his 2007 no-hitter, 2009 perfect game and Major League record of 45 straight batters retired also show his potential for occasional dominance.
"Mark could easily be productive into his 40s, as he's never relied on velocity," Berry said. "Rather, he's a guy that works fast, throws strikes, completely shuts down a running game and is one of the best fielding pitchers in the history of the game: all attributes that tend to age well."
Whether he does that in Chicago, or elsewhere, remains to be seen.