Would now be a good time to mention that the series after this is "Breakout players for 2011"? It really seems like that should be thrown out there before getting any more bogged down in potential negativity.
To ignore the role all the relatively young pitching will have on the White Sox fortunes would be just as foolish as not examining the possibility of any decline amongst several key veterans. It's a fact of the team's roster, and while it's certainly not the doom of it, it deserves t be addressed.
You can ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room, but that only increases the likelihood it mauls you while you're not looking.
So, with all requisite teeth-gritting, let's move forward with the possibilities for Mark Buehrle
Mark Buehrle is chugging toward the end of the 4-year, $56 million extension he was offered during that time in 2007 when he was one of three players on the roster who could be pointed at and have it be said "Hey, he's not screwing up. Since forking out that cash, the Sox have neither reaped the benefits of another elite season like his 2005, nor suffered though anything like 2006. His lack of fire-power regularly keeps him out of any discussion of elite pitchers, but as long as Buehrle has continued to not walk anyone, keep the ball down, and eat innings, he's been no-doubt bet to earn his contract.
Why he might be on the downslide: There's no one big warning sign, but I imagine the unholy trinity of Buehrle turning 32 this Spring, coming off his first ERA over 4.00 since his poor '06 campaign, and a career-low strikeout rate, have together constituted to some a chink in the armor of a man who has made a career out of being right as rain almost every time out.
The strikeout rate is a real concern. Although Buehrle has never been someone reliant on gassing his way out of an inning, if he can't avoid contact at all, he essentially is at the mercy of his defense, which means even more inconsistency. Which is not a knock on the Sox defense, just the nature of defense in general. People drop things: vases, puppies, third outs, etc.
Why this is crazy-talk: Of all the regression candidates, this is the one I get the least worked up about. Yes, Buehrle is aging and has pitched 4 million innings, but without any significant injury or decrease in workload, this is a non-issue until further notice.
His uptick in ERA is mitigated by his best FIP numbers of the last 5 years, and the highest BABIP of his career. And or all his inability to miss bats, the drop was fairly statistically insignificant from some of his other seasonal totals. Look, 4.24 K/9 is very, very low. But so is 4.43 ('09) , and 4.32 ('06), and even 4.65 ('03). He's shown he can pitch at this level and be effective, and without any significant dip in his velocity to report, there's no reason to think that anything is specifically marked for imminent decline.
More than anything it seems like Buehrle is suffering criticism due to some arbitrary labels he's accrued that really don't mean jack. He's the perennial Opening Day starter, so he must be the ace, and so why is he only .500? Only lightly brushing over how a pitcher should never be judged on the basis of things they only have limited control over, Buehrle has been granted a status of "ace" due to his seniority, and the level of respect he receives from the organization. In terms of the traditional--yet highly varying--definition of an "ace", Buehrle falls short. Yet "ace" is not a position, 'starting pitcher' is. As a rotation starter, Buehrle is only responsible for logging heavy innings, going every fifth day, and living up to the win-value of his contract. Mark's been a lock to do that his whole career, and should do it again in 2011.