James Shields is still on the market. As the last major free agent remaining, there has been a great deal of ink spilled over where the durable right-hander might finally sign. It seems pretty clear that Shields’ agent has overplayed his hand in shopping Shields to clubs, perhaps overestimating his value to a significant degree. At this point in the offseason, most teams have turned their attention to non-roster invitees after having already maxed out their offseason budgets.
Yet Shields is still a pitcher with an excellent track record, and even at the age of 33, teams should still have a healthy interest in the free agent. While it seems that more teams should be interested in Shields, the truth of the matter is that there is a great deal of risk involved with signing “Big Game James,” risks that are clearly playing a role in delaying Shields from signing with a ballclub.
Of course, there is a lot to like about Shields. Since 2007, he has been one of the most durable and effective starters in all of MLB. There is also the fact that, by all accounts, Shields is a transformative presence in the clubhouse, and he has been largely credited for sparking the run that ultimately saw the Kansas City Royals taking the San Francisco Giants to Game 7 of the World Series. Even with consistent production and outstanding leadership, there are still at least 10 reasons for teams to avoid signing Shields to a free agent contract this offseason.
10. Signing Pitchers After the Age of 33 Rarely Works Out Well
Shields reportedly had a deal “in hand” for 5 years and $110 million earlier this offseason, and contracts of this length and value have been historically terrible for the teams signing the player. Whether that number was actually offered by a club or was simply fabricated by Shields’ agent is unknown, but it at least illustrates Shields’ expectation with regard to the expected length and value of his contract.
The most recent examples of big-dollar contracts to pitchers close to Shields’ age have had varying results, as examples include Cliff Lee, Kevin Brown, Mark Buehrle, Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and A.J. Burnett. Of those six, only Buehrle’s four-year, $58 million deal has worked out reasonably well. Injury and a rapid decline in effectiveness are common to all of the others, and when one of the greatest pitchers of all time is on the list as a cautionary example, it illustrates just how big a risk it is to invest in a pitcher of Shields’ age.
9. “Big Game James” Is a Big Misnomer
Shields carries the nickname “Big Game James,” owing more to an affinity for rhyme than to his actual performance in the most important games in any baseball season. While James Worthy — the original “Big Game James” — thrived in postseason play while helping the Los Angeles Lakers dominate the NBA in the 1980s, Shields has wilted in playoff opportunities with both the Tampa Bay Rays and the Kansas City Royals. Over the course of his career, Shields has a postseason record of 3-6, pitching to a 5.46 ERA and 4.14 xFIP in 59.1 postseason innings, which is certainly not the kind of performance one would expect from a pitcher with such a nickname.
8. Draft Pick Compensation Is a High Price to Pay
Before James Shields became a free agent, he first had to decline a qualifying offer from the Kansas City Royals worth $15.3 million for one season. Because he declined the qualifying offer (which most players do), he is now attached to draft pick compensation, costing the team that signs him their pick in the 2015 amateur draft. Teams are increasingly valuing their first-round draft picks and are therefore very hesitant to give up those picks and be on the hook for a high-dollar free-agent contract. With enough concern over what Shields will be able to give teams over the length of any contract he signs, teams are likely unwilling to take a gamble on a player while also giving up a first-rounder in the 2015 draft.
7. The Burden of a Career-Long Heavy Workload
Since 2007, no pitcher has pitched more innings than James Shields. During that time, Shields has never pitched less than 203 innings, and he has totaled 1,785.2 innings over that same period. This is something of a double-edged sword, as the innings total is reflective of Shields’ outstanding durability, yet it also cause for serious concern. With so many innings pitched, is it just a matter of time before Shields breaks down, or will his history of durability simply continue? The fact that he is entering his age-33 season and is carrying all of those innings on his arm probably favors the former rather than the latter, as history suggests.
6. Shields Is Not an Ace
Make no mistake, Shields is an excellent pitcher, and he has been for many years. He is among the most consistent starters in baseball, and he is very likely to give any team that signs him something close to his average production over the past eight years: 14 wins, 10 losses, a 3.64 ERA and about 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Those are very solid numbers, and surely any team would be happy to add Shields to their starting pitching rotation. However, those are not the numbers that an ace should be delivering, and Shields is seeking ace-type money. As a second or third starter, Shields is above average. As an ace, Shields falls well short.
5. He Threw Over 4,000 Pitches in 2014
In 2014, when including both the regular season and the postseason, James Shields threw a total of 4,080 pitches. That staggering total is cause for concern, especially considering the recent history of other pitchers who have exceeded the 4,000-pitch threshold over the past 20 seasons. Jeff Zimmerman of FanGraphs put together an excellent chart detailing how each of these pitchers fared in the season following their 4,000-pitch effort, and while the results were not terrifyingly awful, in almost every case the pitcher performed worse. It is perfectly fair to expect a drop-off in Shields’ performance in 2015 coming off a season in which he put a great deal of stress on his arm.
4. Teams That Can Afford Shields Have Least to Gain by Signing Him
While many teams are enjoying the influx of cash from TV deals, not every team has the financial might of the Los Angeles Dodgers or the New York Yankees. At this point in the offseason, most teams have very little payroll flexibility, and those that do are not in need of a pitcher like Shields. The teams that have the most to gain by signing Shields cannot afford him, and the teams that can afford him only stand to improve on a marginal basis. For the kind of money that Shields will command, it does not make sense to improve marginally, nor does it make sense to exceed a team’s budgetary constraints.
3. Shields’ Next Contract Will Pay Him for Years of Declining Production
One of the biggest contractual mistakes a team can make is to pay a player for years of production that have already passed. The Angels are intimately familiar with this error in judgment, having signed Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton to significant contracts in consecutive years, only to see declining production while paying for elite talent. It is common for teams to reward a player for past performance, but that does not mean it is wise. Contracts should be doled out according to what kind of production a player is expected to provide in the future, not based on what they have provided in the past. In the case of Shields, it is probable that there will be a significant amount of age-related regression. In this case, a team will ultimately be paying Shields far too much money for his years of declining production.
2. Traditional Numbers on Shields Are Misleading
Well, they are not that misleading, but there are enough concerns to make it worth noting. Shields has pitched for both Tampa Bay and Kansas City, and over the course of his career in both cities he has posted an ERA of 3.72 while winning 114 games. He has appeared to be even better over the past four years, posting an ERA of 2.82 in 2011, 3.52 in 2012, 3.15 in 2013, and 3.21 in 2014. That’s more than solid for an American League pitcher, but it is also important to note that Shields has benefited from outstanding defense in Kansas City and from the advanced defensive strategies regularly utilized in Tampa Bay. His fielding-independent pitching (FIP) demonstrates that Shields’ ERA has been buoyed by the players behind him, with Shields posting a FIP of 3.42 in 2011, 3.47 in 2012, 3.47 in 2013, and 3.59 in 2014. That’s still solid, but it is also consistently higher than his ERA indicates.
1. Declining Strikeouts Are a Major Concern
There is nothing wrong with pitching to contact, and those in favor of accelerating the pace of the game certainly enjoy watching pitchers pound the strike zone and allow the defense behind them to do the work. However, pitchers still need to be able to miss bats, and Shields’ declining strikeout-per-nine rate is a major concern. Over the last three seasons, Shields has seen his K/9 rate decrease, going from 8.82 in 2012 to 7.14 in 2014. Granted, his BB/9 has also decreased, so this could simply be a change in strategy, but the lack of strikeouts coupled with the fact that Shields is entering his age-33 season makes this a significant red flag, especially since K/9 rates do not bounce back as pitchers enter their mid-30s.
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