Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Curious Case of James Shields

James Shields in 2010 being informed his next World Series appearance would be with the Royals.

Let me start out by saying that I have almost no idea where James Shields will be playing baseball in 2015 or at what sort of price tag. What I do know is that no one else seems to really know either. But I love me some spec-u-latin', so here we go.

Here is what we do know. James Shields is a 32 year old pitcher with a career 111 ERA+ to his name. In his 9 years of Major League service Shields has gone over 200 innings every year in the last 8. He has been remarkably durable and consistent, minus a tough stretch with the Rays during the 09-10 seasons where for the only time in his career his FIP was over 4.00. The last 3 years however, Shields has posted a FIP around 3.50 while pitching for 2 different teams. He has clearly figured something out.

Also, there are those intangibles that we all simply have to take other people's word for. Like the much maligned "Big Game" James nicknamed battered about this postseason. But by most accounts Shields is a strong leader in the clubhouse and of a pitching staff. He is known as a "bulldog" out there on the mound which could mean anything from his general demeanor to that he has a hard time breathing due to a stubby nostril cavity and farts a lot because of it (his nose really isn't all that stubby, at least from pictures I have seen). Anyway, those intangibles are kinda worthless to me in trying to figure out exactly what team will pay how much to put its uniform on him.

What I do know is that there is plenty of reluctance out there to hand an about to be 33 year old pitcher a 5 year contract over a $100 mil which is the number I seem to be reading a lot recently. Most pitchers receiving contracts of that size are under the age of 30 which Shields is rapidly putting in his rear view mirror. Even if some of those under 30 pitchers do not have the same kind of track record that Shields has to his name (Homer Bailey, I'm talking about you).

One interesting comp for age and contract expectations is the deal the Phillies handed Cliff Lee in 2010. At the time we were to understand that Lee took an under market deal to go to Philly because he liked the city and the team (it is a nice city). As if a contract of 5 years at $120mil is somehow under market... but Lee was 32 at the time coming of great run with the Rangers and with a Cy Young under his belt. And for the most part Lee has lived up to his end of the deal with 3 very good years with the Phillies with 2014's injury plagued season fresh in people's minds. Lee hasn't helped the Phillies contend those years, but he sure isn't the reason why they are where they are today.

However, James Shields is not necessary Cliff Lee. Lee's career ERA+ of 118 is largely held down by his first 6 years in the league when he was slightly better than average overall, but since his Cy Young in 2008 he has been a straight beast while on a barnstorming tour of country. Shields just hasn't been THAT good. And it would seem to me if anyone one could qualify as an "ace" it would be Lee. Shields is not at that level. He's just a tick below.

So where does that leave us? It may be worthwhile to examine the potential suitors for Shields. The teams that most commonly come up are the Dodgers (in on everybody), RedSox (people believe they need more pitching), Giants (FA spurned World Series Champs), and the Yankees (so many reasons). RedSox and (new) Dodger management don't seem like the types to be paying $20+mil per year to pitchers who will eventually be 37. If he winds up with either of those teams it will be something closer to 3yrs/$70, which still seems unlikely. I don't buy the Giants paying any more than the RedSox or Dodgers, because even though they could use a guy like Shields, they sure don't need him. The Yankees? I don't know, its possibe, but if they were going to spend big on a pitcher it seems like Scherzer would be their guy. Plus don't underestimate Brian Cashman's position here. He's got a major rebuilding process ahead of him and I'm sure he's actually pretty excited for the opportunity. Paying aging pitchers lots of money won't dig the Yankees out the hole they are in and Cashman knows it.

So for the kind of money Shields is reportedly seeking we may need to look at the fringe candidates. The Texas Rangers could be a possibility, but may be a little gun shy of FA's with recent experiences with Shin Soo Choo and Prince Fielder (traded I know, but the point is there). There's no way Padres are really serious on this one. The Angel are out there, but they have a lot of financial commitments already on the books. I see the Marlins possibly getting involved, but at that price its a question. Now the Tigers might be a stealth team in this if they miss out on Scherzer. They could use some more quality, proven pitching to keep up in the AL Central and ownership is more than willing to spend when needed. 

Another team that keeps coming up for me is the Houston Astros. I know it seems crazy, but how different of a position are the Astros in now from where the Nationals were when they were willing to give Jason Werth that big money deal in 2011. A team rich in prospects that no one saw coming giving an "over market" contract to attract a big name FA. Werth has delivered and the Nats are contenders. Its an eerily similar situation. (I've got more to say about the Astros later)

If Shields wants the money and the years its probably going to come from an up and coming team who has to pay extra to attract players. If we wants to win with an established team, he may need to take fewer years, but the price per year will likely be around the same. However, the prospect of leading a rising team to the promise-land while being paid a truckload of money to do it may be just the kind of thing that gets "Big Game" James going.

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