Mark Buehrle rolls on. He's headed toward both the last turn in what has been one of his best seasons and a chance to go on the free-agent market this winter.
But Buehrle is only one of five elite left-handers who could control his fate in the next 16 months. CC Sabathia, C.J. Wilson, Cole Hamels and John Danks, Buehrle's teammate with the White Sox, also are on track for free agency after 2011 or '12.
The buzz created by Cliff Lee's free agency last winter, when the Yankees romanced him and he was pressured to stay with the Rangers before jumping to the Phillies for $120 million over five years, could foreshadow crazy scenarios the next two offseasons.
There's an expectation that many of the guys in this fivesome will stay with their teams, but nothing is as clear-cut as it seems, including Sabathia quietly extending his deal with the Yankees and Buehrle finishing out his career with the Sox after his four-year deal expires after this season.
Sabathia, who is expected to opt out after this season of the seven-year, $161 million contract he signed with the Yankees before the 2009 season, is clearly the most valued player in this group. There is no one way to line up the other four, however.
One longtime scout I spoke to rates the Rangers' Wilson, who has started only two years, ahead of the Phillies' Hamels. Both are free agents after this season. He also puts Buehrle ahead of Danks, which goes against the perception that Danks' relative youth — he's 26 — will help him generate a windfall when he hits free agency after 2012.
Another guy who follows free agency says he would line up the other four behind Sabathia like this: Hamels, Buehrle, Danks and Wilson. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and all it takes are two interested teams to create a market.
Buehrle's stock has been rising throughout this season. His victory in Baltimore on Thursday marked the 18th consecutive start in which he allowed three runs or fewer, the longest such White Sox streak since Frank "Piano Mover'' Smith made an identical run in 1909.
Since Buehrle last allowed more than three runs in a start, Sabathia has had eight untidy starts. Lee and Felix Hernandez have had six apiece, Tim Lincecum has had five, Justin Verlander four, Josh Beckett and Roy Halladay three apiece and Jered Weaver two. That's 37 starts of four-plus runs by the eight pitchers most likely to lead Cy Young voting — 4.6 per stud — compared with zero for the unassuming Buehrle.
Wilson, who is in only his second full season as a starter, might be the biggest wild card in this hand of cards. His talent intrigues scouts and executives, who still talk about how he shut down the Rays in the division series at Tropicana Field. He has less mileage on his arm than the other four because he started his career as a reliever.
A team like the Cubs or Royals could spend heavily for Wilson or Buehrle this winter. The Yankees could spend heavily to add them behind Sabathia — or even more heavily if they are forced to try to replace Sabathia. The first question is how many of these guys will actually reach the market.
Keeping the faith: Joe Girardi is keeping a poker face about Mariano Rivera, who is no longer the shutdown closer he has been throughout his career. Rivera was scored on in three consecutive outings last week, but Girardi downplayed his concern.
Asked when he would worry, he said, "if it happened for a month.''
After converting 83 of 86 save chances in 2008 and '09, Rivera has gone 63-for-73 the last two seasons. His five blown saves this season are one short of the all-time low he set in 2003, but Girardi appreciates that he's still not beating himself, compiling a 39-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Russell Branyan, who recently hit a three-run homer off Rivera, says his cut fastball isn't feared as much as previously. He also thinks teams are giving themselves more of a chance mentally when Rivera comes into a game.
"Yeah, word gets around,'' Branyan said. "It's always perception, reputation, momentum, what the other team sees and thinks. … (But) he could go from tomorrow to the end of the year and not give up another run. He has that capability.''