Where will James Shields end up?

Posted: 01/26/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

Every year, there’s one marquee free agent who’s still available at the end of January and into February. This year, I thought it might be Max Scherzer, but Scherzer recently signed with the Nationals for seven years and $210 million. That’s definitely going to work out, right? I don’t really agree with Washington’s decision to sign Scherzer. I understand why they did it; already the World Series favorite, the Nationals want to give their team as good of a shot as possible at winning it all. But Washington already had a great rotation, and they’ll now probably move Jordan Zimmermann to make room for Scherzer. So this trade was more about long-term security – the fact that Scherzer is locked up for seven years – than an improvement to the team next season since Zimmermann is a free agent after next year. I understand the desire to lock people up long-term, but is it really worth $30 million per year? I don’t know.

Anyway, Scherzer’s not the guy whose signing process got way too dragged out. That guy is now clearly James Shields. All of the other big free agents have been signed, some of them months ago, but Shields is still out there. The 33-year-old former Ray and Royal has posted four good years in a row after having weirdly bad seasons in both 2009 and 2010. He’s coming off a 3.21 ERA year and has posted 16.5 Fangraphs WAR since 2011, 10th most in baseball and half a win behind Jon Lester, who signed a six year deal worth $155 million with the Cubs.

In fact, although Lester had the better season last year, the two pitchers are pretty similar. Lester’s a couple of years younger, which probably means his deal will end up being longer than Shields’, but both have a long history of being good #2 starters but not quite aces in the AL. I expect Shields to get 4-5 years and $20-22 million per year, which is just a little bit less than Lester but still more than enough to keep a bunch of teams from being able to sign him.

Who will sign him, then? The issue is that a lot of teams that would make sense have already ruled themselves out. I would have thought that the Brewers (after their trade of Yovani Gallardo), Diamondbacks, Giants (before they signed Ryan Vogelsong), Tigers, Marlins, and Red Sox would have been good fits for the pitcher. But unfortunately for Shields’ pocket book, they’ve all pretty much ruled him out. That doesn’t mean one or more of them won’t revisit if the price gets low enough, but for now they seem to be out of the running.

Where does that leave us? With very few options. I mean, the Athletics have done some weird things this offseason, but they already have a bajillion starters. The Phillies, who normally love spending money, are in the midst of a rebuild. I could go on and on. Anyway, I think the best options that haven’t been totally ruled out are the Royals, Blue Jays, and Padres.

Shields lives in San Diego, which is already a huge sign that the Pads could have a shot at signing him. They’ve also shown the willingness to spend lots of money this offseason, mainly through the trade for Matt Kemp. They have a better team now than they had last season, but they might not be good enough to contend yet. They’ve been linked to a trade for Cole Hamels (another California native), and I’ll delve into Hamels and Jordan Zimmermann trade options in a later post (assuming they don’t get traded before I get around to it). But they might not have the prospects to get either pitcher, which would make Shields a perhaps more attainable alternative.

If the Royals had more money, they probably would have re-signed Shields already. The pitcher was Kansas City’s staff ace on last year’s Cinderella runner-up, and I’m sure the Royals would love to have him atop the rotation (along with Yordano Ventura) again. And GM Dayton Moore has at least admitted on the idea of re-signing Shields: “I can’t say it hasn’t crossed my mind,” although he added: “At this point in time, though, it’s doubtful we bring back James.” Personnel-wise, Shields would make a lot of sense for the Royals, and I think their chances of getting him back increase by the day.

And the Blue Jays might have a greater need for Shields than any other aspiring contender. They are known to be interested in Shields and would surely sign him if they had the money. But the Blue Jays have other needs also and don’t have the deepest pockets in the world, so they probably wouldn’t be able to sign Shields in the $20-25 million range he’s looking for.

All three of those teams make sense, but if you gave me odds on who would sign Shields, I would definitely take “The Field.” I really think the race to sign the best free agent left is wide open, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see one of the teams that has ruled out signing Shields to end up signing him. I still think both the Marlins and Red Sox are as likely as any single team, which is to say not very likely at all.

In the end, I think it will come down to who’s the most desperate to become a real playoff contender. Will it be Toronto, Miami, or San Diego? Or maybe someone I’m not even considering? I know the Cardinals were interested in Scherzer and Lester, so maybe Shields could be their guy, but they don’t usually sign 30+ year-old pitchers to long deals. In the end, I think it’ll come down to Miami and Toronto, and Miami has more money than Toronto, so I’ll say the Marlins sign Shields despite already ruling it out. But again, it could be someone I haven’t even mentioned. Considering that Shields is a really good pitcher who’s coming off a really good year, his free-agency has surprisingly few suitors, at least as far as we know. That’s probably because of his age and mileage, but it’s surprising nonetheless. Again, I’ll go with the Marlins, but the Blue Jays or numerous other teams could be desperate enough or have enough money to nab James Shields.

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