Don’t expect Shields to sign in Seattle

 It sounds like the top remaining free agent will soon have a home. Jon Morosi of Fox Sports reports that James Shields is weighing multiple offers and is expected to make a decision by the end of the week. Morosi mentions the New York Yankees and San Diego Padres have been in recent talks with the right-hander.

Jon Heyman of CBS Sports tweets that the Yankees, San Francisco Giants, and Los Angeles Angels are not among the finalists for Shields. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reports that the Boston Red Sox aren’t involved either while Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star reports that the Kansas City Royals are more interested in the draft pick they’re due for Shields rejecting the qualifying offer. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch tweets that the St. Louis Cardinals prefer to fill their rotation hole internally.

By the power of deduction we have the Padres and Miami Marlins, who have maintained interested in Shields, as the most likely destinations for the right-hander at this point. The Seattle Mariners have not been connected to the free agent recently.

Although Shields ranked a tier below the top free agent starters this winter, he can still pitch at the top of a major league rotation. For his career the right-hander has a 3.72 ERA and 3.77 FIP in 1910 and 1/3 innings pitched. His career strikeout and walk rates are 7.66 and 2.13 respectively with eight straight seasons of 200 or more innings pitched.

Entering his age-33 season, there is obviously some concerns that the volume of innings is going to catch up with Shields sooner than later. The right-hander has reportedly been looking for a five-year deal but at this point that seems like a long shot.

Shields is the definition of a workhorse and has averaged just under seven innings per start in his career. Mark Buehrle was able to parlay a similar skill set — albeit with slightly worse overall numbers — into a four-year, $58 million contract prior to the 2012 season. At this point, Shields may well end up with a similar contract.

Jeff Todd of MLB Trade Rumors notes that no free agent pitcher has secured more than a $50 million guarantee in February. Most teams have the bulk of their roster constructed and money that was available in December has, for the most part, been utilized. Ubaldo Jimenez did manage to secure a four-year, $50 million deal last winter from the Baltimore Orioles in February, but would appear to be an exception to what has become more or less a rule: significant free agent money isn’t available this late in the winter.

When I profiled Shields’ free agent stock back in December, I concluded that the $90-plus million it would cost to sign Shields would likely be better utilized by the Mariners elsewhere. Since then the M’s have added Nelson Cruz and Seth Smith to bolster their lineup. Right now Seattle’s payroll projects to land in the $115-to-120 million range. In other words, it’s about maxed.

[pullquote]Even at a reduced cost, Seattle is an unlikely landing spot for Shields. The presence of Walker and Elias serves as a deterrent for committing big dollars to the right-hander.[/pullquote]

GM Jack Zduriencik has mentioned in interviews that he still has room for minor moves but suggested under the right circumstances, ownership may allow for a significant addition.

As discussed by Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill and Alex Carson on The Hot Stove Report, the possibility of Shields signing in Seattle, even at a deflated price, is still very unlikely.

First and foremost, the Mariners don’t really have room in the 2015 rotation for Shields. Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, J.A. Happ, and James Paxton are locks with one of Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias likely to take the No. 5 role. That doesn’t include Erasmo Ramirez who is out of options and would have to clear waivers to be sent down to Triple-A this year.

If we are talking about the 2016 rotation, it’s a slightly different story. Both Iwakuma and Happ are slated to hit free agency and at least one rotation spot should be opened up. Between the two and closer Fernando Rodney, upwards of $20 million will be cleared off the books at season’s end. That would essentially cover Shields’ potential salary in 2016 and each year beyond.

The question then turns back to 2015: is Shields the guy the M’s want to break the bank for?

There’s little doubt that Shields does improve the team in the short-term, despite the starting pitching depth. He’s likely a better starter in 2015 than anyone currently in the rotation mix not named Felix. But we have to look at the marginal increase in value that Shields adds as opposed to purely evaluating what he brings.

For example’s sake, let’s say Walker wins the No. 5 job and pitches the entire season with the big league club. He probably winds up producing along the lines of an average big league player — 1.5-2.0 WAR. Shields was worth 3.7 fWAR in 2014 and Steamer projects him for 3.0 fWAR in 2015.

Let’s split the difference and call Shields a 3.5 fWAR pitcher in 2015. We’re looking at a projected 1.0-2.0 WAR upgrade over Walker. However, Walker arguably has the potential to reasonably beat that projection while Shields has the potential to fall short.

Walker won’t turn 23 until August and Mariners fans don’t need to hear about the talent and potential this kid has. Shields on the other hand, will pitch at 33 and as noted, is likely due for a decline at some point in the near future. Both come with risk, but Walker doesn’t carry a $15-to-20 million salary.

The numbers support Shields continuing his pace as he ages — particularly an increase in fastball velocity — but the risk is still there. Shields’ ceiling in 2015 is probably in the 4.0-to-4.5 WAR range. I would not expect a career year out of the right-hander.

Does Shields improve the Mariners in 2015? Definitely. Would he be a nice piece to have when planning for 2016 and beyond? Definitely. But considering where the club sits in terms of payroll, and a more pressing need for an additional bat, Shields doesn’t make a lot of sense. Even at a reduced price from the five years and $100 million he was seeking a few months back.

And no, Shields will not be signing a one-year deal this winter. Maybe if a team was willing to pay him $40 million for that year, but the chances are practically nil. Even at a $16 million salary, Shields would guarantee himself about $50 million on a three-year deal. Not exactly the contract numbers he was hoping to achieve, but not small change either.

The is a non-zero chance that James Shields is a Seattle Mariner in 2015. The veteran is known to prefer signing with a west coast team, but too much stock shouldn’t be put into that.

It also appears unlikely that Shields will sign with an American League West foe. The Angels, despite the clear fit, are said to be out and the Texas Rangers haven’t been mentioned in a while. I suppose the Houston Astros could make a surprise run, but that feels unlikely.

All three of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Toronto Blue Jays would make sense as landing spots for Shields, especially Toronto. The Jays don’t have a clear ace and despite being near the top of their budget, could convince ownership that the expenditure is needed to break the longest playoff drought in pro sports.

The Marlins remain in the picture even though they are out east. If they are willing to go four years, I’d imagine that’d probably put them as the favorites. The Padres, who have already made a number of significant moves, should also be watched closely. It sounds like the club still has some payroll to play with and could also use a boost at the top of the rotation.

If Seattle is to make one more major transaction before the start of the season, expect it to be by trade. The missing link simply does not appear to be available via free agency.

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