Is Shields a fit for M’s?

A right-hander that helped lead the Kansas City Royals to the World Series was notched firmly below Max Scherzer and Jon Lester among starting pitchers when discussing the 2014-2015 free agent class. James Shields ended up joining the San Diego Padres on a four-year, $75 million deal last winter, a winter in which the Padres were heralded as the winners of the offseason. Unfortunately things didn’t go as planned and with a few key pieces already departed, the Friars are reportedly looking to deal their ace.

Shields, who’ll turn 34 a few days before Christmas, had a down year in 2015 by his standards despite clearing the 200-inning plateau for the ninth consecutive season. He did post a career-best strikeout rate, but also a career-worst walk rate. Perhaps one of the main reasons for Shields’ down year, and this is strange having pitched half his innings at Petco Park, was difficulty with the long ball. His 17.6 percent home run per fly ball rate was nearly double the rates he had posted in the previous two seasons.

The right-hander’s spike in home runs could be worrisome, but it appears that it could simply be an outlier as his BABIP and contact rates were in line with his career averages. Shields has lost a tick on his fastball over the past couple years, but he has never been a guy who has relied on velocity so that shouldn’t be concerning

It’s conceivable that Shields could regain his form as a three-to-four WAR pitcher next season, but I would bet on the lower end of that spectrum given his age and the miles on his arm. Still a valuable asset, though.

ESPN’s Buster Olney reports via Twitter that there is significant interest in the Padres’ ace. Olney also points out that Shields passed through revocable waivers last August. There was speculation that San Diego wanted to rid themselves of the contract at that time and are looking to do so again.

So we have a quality arm who’s proven to be good for 200 productive innings annually. First question, why are the Padres trying to move him? Second, why hasn’t anyone taken him yet? Answer: the contract.

Of the $75 million guaranteed to the right-hander, only $10 million of it was paid in 2015. Part of how the Padres were able to sign Shields, amidst their other big money transactions, was to front-load the deal. For each of the next three seasons, Shields is due $21 million. He will also be owed a $2 million buyout for a $16 million team option for the 2019 season.

Also to be aware of: Shields can opt-out of his contract after 2016. This means he could be a one-year rental to an acquiring club. If he has a rebound season it’s not inconceivable to see him get a new three-year deal with an average annual value north of $20 million. But it could be tough to get a fourth-year guaranteed so there are pros and cons on Shields’ side for opting out.

Let’s assume he doesn’t opt out, and we can say Shields is owed $65 million for the next three years. That’s $20 million more than now former Mariner, Hisashi Iwakuma, received in his three-year free agent contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It doesn’t sound as if the total sum of money was the issue for Seattle not re-signing their No. 2 starter. GM Jerry Dipoto said yesterday that the club wasn’t comfortable with paying Iwakuma for his age 35, 36, and 37 seasons while mentioning sustainability. Some reports had the Mariners offering two years and $25 million.

For the next three years Shields will pitch in his age 34, 35, and 36 seasons — just one year younger than Iwakuma. However, if sustainability is the desired target, that’s where Shields differentiates himself from Iwakuma. In the past three seasons, Iwakuma has one campaign of 200-plus innings to Shields’ three.

As seen in yesterday’s trade with the Boston Red Sox, the Mariners gave up Carson Smith and Roenis Elias for a similar sustainability. Wade Miley has four straight years of throwing 190-plus innings, but is only 29-years-old and his total cost for the next three years would be slightly less than $27 million if his 2019 option is exercised. There’s value in cost certainty and the potential for slightly more upside with a pitcher yet to hit 30.

The Padres are reportedly willing to eat salary to move Shield’s contract. This morning they dealt $7.5 million and Jedd Gyorko to the St. Louis Cardinals for Jon Jay and his $6.225 million salary. Obviously this was a different scenario, but between the cash sent and money owed to Jay, the Padres were willing to eat almost $14 million of the $33 million guaranteed to Gyorko over the next four years.

How much the Padres are willing to eat in order to move Shields will be less relevant than what Seattle would potentially be willing to take on.

We haven’t talked about the potential fit, but that much should be self-explanatory. Miley sits No. 2 to Felix Hernandez on the depth chart, but better reflects the skill set of a No. 3 starter in a good rotation, and perhaps a No. 4 in a great rotation. Nothing against Miley, he just doesn’t quite fill the gap that a healthy Iwakuma leaves.

Shields could still be a solid No. 2, and with an improved outfield defense behind him — a lack of Matt Kemp would help anybody — should be able to succeed in Seattle.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the Mariners value Shields between $15-to-$18 million annually. This would mean getting the Padres to eat $3-to-$6 million annually. Part of the value Miley brings, according to Dipoto, is that what he provides the kind of value that would cost between $12 and $18 million on the free agent market.

Without having an inside look at the Padres’ financials, I’m going to suggest that an arrangement along those lines would be feasible. But, it would involve San Diego getting that much more in player value as the return.

Seattle doesn’t have a Brad Miller available anymore to solve the Padres’ shortstop problems. After trading Elias it’s unlikely a James Paxton or Taijuan Walker would be on the move and there’s literally no more bullpen depth to deal from. Chris Taylor or Ketel Marte could probably be a conversation starter, but would the M’s need to add a D.J. Peterson to get the Padres’ attention?

If San Diego is open to less-immediate major league help, maybe rising prospect Tyler Smith could be of interest. Top prospects Edwin Diaz and Alex Jackson are still a few years away from the majors and while I don’t love the term untouchable, they should only enter the conversation if Seattle is getting a top-flite young player with multiple years of control.

Perhaps an ideal situation would be the Padres taking back old friend Seth Smith. With Justin Upton departing via free agency there is some need for additional outfield depth, and the money owed to Smith could balance out the finances some.

A deal based on Smith and Taylor with a mid-level prospect going to San Diego could be a starting point, but I have a feeling another club will be able to offer more than Seattle can, either in player value or in portion of contract assumed.

After dealing Carson Smith, Elias, Miller, and Patrick Kivlehan, the Mariners don’t really have the depth to make a significant deal without moving major league parts or young roster players. I don’t think that will or should stop Dipoto from trying to make a big splash, but it is a legitimate consideration.

I think getting James Shields at three years and $45-to-50 million would be a solid buy based on what’s going on with free agency. Last winter Brandon McCarthy signed for four years and $48 million, and we already have J.A. Happ costing the Toronto Blue Jays $36 million over three years. There are other examples, but Shields at $15 million annually is a much better buy than either of those two starters at $12 million per.

Given the demand for Shields, I don’t think the market will soften enough to the point where he fits what Dipoto wants to do. Until we hear a little more about what the potential ask might be, it’s tough to speculate on what the M’s would need to give up.

If Shields does plan on opting out, which we won’t know for 11 months, it doesn’t make sense to pay a steep price for a rental. If the Padres were to deal him as a potential rental though, the asking price would likely reflect that. Maybe guaranteeing Shields’ 2019 option with an equal AAV to his other three years could convince him to drop the opt-out. That’s my own speculation though.

Obviously every player makes sense at a certain price and Shields may not end up at a price that makes sense for Seattle. This may not be an idea worth pursuing, but it’s worth exploring in order to beef up the rotation for potentially the next couple seasons.

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Tyler Carmont

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