BRADENTON, Fla. — Thirteen players and coaches have worn No. 56 for the Cubs. Could Mark Buehrle one day become the 14th?
"What if?'' Buehrle said on a sunny Wednesday in the visiting clubhouse at McKechnie Field. I had asked him what would have happened if the Marlins had traded him to the Cubs rather than the Blue Jays, and he gave an honest answer.
"It could still happen,'' Buehrle said. "Am I going to say no because I played all those years on the South Side? No. It's a job. I'm going to go forward. I'm not going to stop playing just because of where I'm traded. Did I think I'd be playing in Toronto? I'm not going to quit playing just because it's Toronto, just like I wouldn't stop playing if it was the Cubs.''
With a contract that runs through 2015, Buehrle could be around long enough to be considered as a late-season reinforcement on the Cubs' next contending team. But that's forever away. He has another job now, and he has warmed up to it nicely.
Acquired from the Marlins alongside Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Emilio Bonifacio in one of the biggest trades in the free-agent era, the 33-year-old Buehrle hopes to earn a World Series ring to go alongside one from the 2005 White Sox.
He will work alongside National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, Johnson and holdovers Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero in a Blue Jays' rotation he believes can be better than the one Ozzie Guillen used to go through the playoffs 11-1 in '05.
"The starters here can be better,'' Buehrle said. "The whole team here looks better to me than the one we won the World Series with. But you can't compare this team to that team because we haven't accomplished anything. We have to go do it.''
The Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series in 1992 and '93 but haven't been back to the playoffs since then. The presence of sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, along with young third baseman Brett Lawrie, convinced President Paul Beeston to go for it this year.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos staged an all-out assault on the player market, sacrificing top prospects to make the Marlins trade and another for Dickey while signing Melky Cabrera as a free agent and adding complementary parts like Mark DeRosa and Maicer Izturis.
DeRosa, who was considering his broadcasting future at one point, was stunned by the scope of the deal the Blue Jays made with the Marlins, who were unloading veterans after firing Guillen.
"Wow,'' DeRosa said. "You're talking about acquiring two No. 1s, probably one of the top five or 10 players in the game in Jose Reyes — arguably the top shortstop — and one of the best utility guys in Bonnie. You give Alex and his staff a lot of credit for pulling it off. Then they added R.A., who won the Cy Young. It's pretty special to be part of this.''
Allowed to reach free agency after the Sox had extended John Danks' contract, Buehrle followed Guillen to the Marlins, signing a four-year, $58-million deal. He had little to do with the Marlins' failure to ignite, going 13-13 with a 3.74 ERA in his first year out of Chicago.
"You can pretty much pencil him in for double-figure wins, 200 innings,'' Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "What does he have, 200 innings for 12 years in a row? That's nice. There's no guarantee of it, but you feel pretty good going in about what you're going to get.''
This will be the first season since 2003 that Buehrle has played for a manager other than Guillen, and he has missed his old boss.
"It has been weird,'' Buehrle said. "He and Jerry Manuel were the only managers I had played for. Not having him around, hearing him all the time, is a big difference.''
Buehrle blames injuries for the Marlins' finish last year — "We had a rotating clock of guys on the disabled list,'' he said — and thinks Guillen really was finished after his comments to Time Magazine about Fidel Castro, which were interpreted as being in support of Castro.
"He didn't start off too good,'' Buehrle said, in a classic understatement. "From what he said to me, those quotes didn't come out the way he meant them. He meant that he respected Castro because he was still alive with so many people hating him, but it sounded different in the magazine. You could tell it affected him. He wasn't sleeping. He had to apologize, and he has said a lot of stuff before without ever having to apologize.''
Buehrle had bought a home in Broward County, near Miami, where he and his wife Jamie kept their children and their animals, including pet pit bulls. Because pit bulls are not allowed in Ontario, he will live apart from his family while with the Blue Jays, flying to see them as often as possible at their home outside St. Louis.
He wishes he hadn't had to make such a difficult choice. But he didn't insist on a no-trade clause in his contract, and he reluctantly accepts that hardships come with eight-figure annual salaries.
Now he wants to prove that he and his teammates are as good as they're cracked up to be. As always, I will bet on Buehrle. He rarely lets you down.