The prized free agent arms of this offseason belong to Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, but James Shields is an ace in his own right. Given the moniker ‘Big Game James’, Shields has been among the more consistent pitchers in baseball over the last several years. The 32-year old played a key role in the American League Champion Kansas City Royals trip to the World Series in 2014.
Shields was acquired by the Royals prior to the 2013 season in a trade that included top prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi being sent to the Tampa Bay Rays. He will be a free agent for the first time in his career after an extension originally signed with the Rays in 2008 comes to a close and he enters a very pitching-rich market.
Age: 33 on Dec. 20
Agent: PSI Sports Management
Qualifying Offer: Yes
Shields utilizes five pitches — a fourseam, sinker, cutter, curveball, and changeup — with a particular reliance on the fourseam and changeup throughout his career. His fastball velocity sits in the lower 90’s and has gradually increased speed to a 93-to-94 miles per hour average in 2014. His cutter has above average movement while his changeup has less. The right-hander throws his curveball with a knuckle-curve grip that has primarily 12-6 movement.
Shields has thrown 200-plus innings in eight straight seasons accounting for every full season he has spent in the big leagues. He doesn’t rely on the strikeout to get batters out — his career strikeouts per nine is 7.66 — although he does have a pair of 200-plus strikeout seasons and hasn’t punched out fewer than 180 since 2009. Shields relies on his above average control to induce ground balls and limit walks. His career walk rate is 2.20 per nine and his 1.74 mark in 2014 was the fourteenth lowest in all of baseball.
Shields, soon to be 33, has pitched 1910 and 1/3 innings to the tune of a 3.72 ERA and 3.77 FIP for his career. He is looking for his ninth-straight season with 200-plus innings and makes for an excellent track record. Very few pitchers have been as durable as Shields over the past decade and the right-hander has yet to hit the disabled list in his major league career. He doesn’t carry the risk of a flamethrower and his precision-based skill set should age well.
The increase in Shields’ fastball velocity over the last several seasons is interesting as typically the opposite takes place. Although he relies on well-placed pitches to create outs, he does have some swing-and-miss stuff.
Shields will turn 33 in December and should he follow the typical aging curve, begin to see some decline in his performance. The right-hander has logged 932 and 2/3 innings over the last few years and it’s possible that the wear and tear on his body could become evident in the near future. There’s also some who doubt whether or not Shields is an elite starter as he’s yet to post a season worth more than 5.0 fWAR. He has a pair of 4.5 fWAR seasons on his resume but there’s a possibility he gets paid like a No. 1 starter but produces like a No. 2 or 3 starter over the next several seasons. He has also benefitted from pitching in the spacious Kauffman Stadium and the Royals strong defence over the past two seasons.
For someone known as ‘Big Game James’ he certainly hasn’t lived up to the hype in the postseason. In 11 playoff starts split between the Rays and Royals Shields has a 5.46 ERA and 4.42 FIP in 59 and 1/3 innings pitched. Given his strong regular season track record, however, the postseasons stumbles probably won’t pose a threat to potential interest from clubs.
Should a team sign Shields a first-round draft pick would be surrendered as the right-hander was tendered and declined a qualifying offer.
Cost & Conclusion: Mariners Perspective
One of the strengths of the Seattle Mariners is their pitching staff. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are one of the best one-two punches in baseball and young pitchers Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Roenis Elias figure to fill out the rest of the rotation. That doesn’t take the M’s out of the running for a pitcher like Shields, however, as the club was connected to Lester earlier in the winter. Acquiring offense is the priority for the club this winter and there are no recent reports to suggest any particular pitcher is being pursued at this time.
It has been well discussed that Walker and Paxton are two of Seattle’s top trade chips but both figure to hold prominent roles in the rotation in 2015 and beyond. As has also been mentioned before, the acquisition of a top-flite starter such as Shields would make the dealing of a Walker or Paxton or even an Iwakuma in a deal for a bat a much easier pill to swallow.
Although the Royals didn’t believe they would have a chance to re-sign Shields back in the spring, but reportedly would make a serious attempt if they were able to go on a long playoff run, which they did. There’s nothing new on the Shields front in terms of interested parties, but that figures to pick up once Lester or Scherzer makes a decision and teams turn their attention elsewhere. It is believed though that Shields is looking for a nine-figure contract over five years. It’s possible he signs for four, but he has a case for five and that will mark a shorter term than what the other free agent aces will sign for.
Prior to the start of the 2012 season Mark Buehrle — another extra-durable pitcher who relies on pinpoint accuracy — signed a four-year contract that paid him $18 million in 2014 and will pay him $19 million in 2015. Shields should have no problem securing an average salary in that range as he is younger and the influx of cash in the game has continued to inflate free agent prices. It’s likely that teams will line up to offer four years but it’ll probably be the team that is willing to go give that gets the starter — the same as with Russell Martin.
The Mariners certainly have the money to go after Shields and he’d be a great addition at the top of the rotation. His acquisition would also make the loss of Walker in a potential deal much more bearable. Whether or not Shields is interested in heading to the Pacific Northwest is unknown at this point. There haven’t been any reports suggesting that Seattle is seriously considering Shields either.
The goal for the Mariners this winter is to upgrade, and Shields would be an upgrade in the rotation. The club would probably be better served investing the $90-plus million he’ll sign for elsewhere, but at this point, anything is possible.