Buehrle wants focus to be on field
White Sox hurler pushes contractual talks to the back burner
TUSCON, Ariz. -- Mark Buehrle walked into the White Sox clubhouse Friday afternoon, traded some good-natured ribbing with the awaiting Chicago media and got himself ready to throw for a bit outside.
By his own estimation, Buehrle has dropped about eight pounds from the end of the 2006 season while adding muscle through offseason work with a personal trainer. He appears more than ready to begin competition for what could be one of the most important years, on a personal level, of his stellar career.
But the team's ace southpaw also quickly proved he hasn't lost his dry wit or his perspective on the contractual topic holding the initial interest where Buehrle is concerned, as pitchers and catchers officially report on Saturday for their physicals and first workouts. Buehrle displayed this combination of knowledge with one brief answer when asked if he was glad to be in camp and focusing once again on baseball.
"Is that what we're going to talk about?" said Buehrle with a wry smile. "I hope. Yeah, I'm excited. This is the most I've done in an offseason to get prepared for a season and Spring Training.
"The way I feel and the way I've been throwing, with bullpen sessions, I'm pretty excited to get going," Buehrle added.
Buehrle begins the current campaign in the home stretch of a three-year, $18 million contract, including a $9.5 million team option on a fourth year picked up by the White Sox for 2007. With the recent contractual explosion surrounding pitchers who are less accomplished than Buehrle, both in years on the deal and salary per season, the location of where Buehrle will be pitching in 2008 seems to have superseded his actual 2007 work in Chicago.
A misunderstanding during the first day of SoxFest led to a brief exchange of words in the media between general manager Ken Williams and Buehrle, and an ensuing apology from Williams. It was Buehrle's expressed belief to the media that Williams wasn't bringing him back to Chicago after this current campaign, regardless of how he pitched, while the White Sox general manager steadfastly reiterated that those exact words never have come from him. Truth be told, Williams counts Buehrle as a prototypical sort of player for ultimate success -- both on the field and in the clubhouse.
As for the public apology issued by Williams the following Saturday at SoxFest, Buehrle repeated Friday at the Kino Sports Complex that it was completely unnecessary.
"He told me he was going to apologize to me, and I asked him for what," Buehrle said. "There was nothing there, I thought.
"On [a local Chicago sportsradio station], they said there was a 'war of words between Buehrle and Kenny Williams.' I actually had to listen to it to see what they were going to make up, saying a war of words."
One particular fact confirmed by Buehrle on Friday was that a firm White Sox offer of a contract extension was turned down by his agent on Buehrle's behalf some time around the All-Star break last year. Buehrle did not specify the money or the years, although one source close to the situation listed the offer at three years and in the neighborhood of $31 to $33 million.
Turning down somewhere around $11 million per year doesn't seem too far-fetched for a hurler with a 97-66 career mark, not when pitchers with .500 records are getting between $8 and $10 million per season. The question at hand for Buehrle, much like the one that faced first baseman Paul Konerko after the championship season of 2005, will be how much money and how many years are enough to stay in a locale where he loves to play?
It's a balance to be struck by both sides, according to Buehrle, who has no regrets passing on last year's offer.
"You have to take everything in perspective," Buehrle said. "I'm comfortable here in Chicago, and then you see what you can go get somewhere else.
"There's a lot to look at. But like I said, I want to finish my career here. There are two sides to work at it, just like a contract with anybody."
As for the on-field part of Buehrle's existence, the soon-to-be 28-year-old is coming off the lone subpar effort of his six years as a starter. But Buehrle cautions not to sink his entire 2006 season by simply looking at the final numbers of a 12-13 record, 4.99 ERA and 247 hits allowed over 204 innings pitched, including 36 home runs.
Take away an 0-5 effort with an 11.48 ERA in July and his season becomes steady, if not spectacular. Of course, every player would like to have a few mulligans where a season's worth of stats are concerned, but Buehrle has put in extra time during this past offseason to make sure the July problem does not rise up again at any point.
Along with the personal training sessions, Buehrle played much more long toss and threw off the mound three or four times.
"I still think I have to go on thinking positive and say, 'Hey, it was only one month that I didn't do the job' and try to build the confidence level," Buehrle said. "Obviously, I don't like going out and getting beat, and I don't like getting hit like I did last year. So I used that to go motivate myself to get ready for this year."
For seven minutes on Friday, Buehrle talked about his past, present and even gave a bit of insight into his thoughts on the future. The future conversation is not one he hopes to have too frequently during the course of the season, making the contractual news more of a need-to-know basis.
Ozzie Guillen shares that opinion. He watched how the 2004 contract talks with Magglio Ordonez sometimes became bigger than the team and watched how the same sort of talks involving Konerko in 2005 were spoken of early on and then tabled until after the World Series sweep was complete.
With both Buehrle and right fielder Jermaine Dye sure to draw contractual focus in the last year of their respective deals, Guillen hopes the topic is addressed over the next few weeks and then the focus is placed back on baseball. It's a message Guillen will convey to his team during Spring Training's first meeting.
"You play this game for your family, and obviously you play this game because you want to win," Guillen said. "You're not a doctor, this is the way you make your living.
"I just don't want the ballclub to get caught up in one guy talking about his contract. I don't think that's fair, and I will let them all know my feelings."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.