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james shields royalsThe free agent meat market is still about a month away, but with some of the best available arms on display this week, there are bound to be some discussions and heart palpitations.

The AL Wild Card Game was awesome for so many reasons, and, among those reasons is that it featured two of the top free-agents-to-be squaring off in Jon Lester and James Shields. The Cubs have been linked (obsessively) to Lester already this year, but what about Shields? No, he doesn’t have the front office connection, and yes, he’s two years older than Lester … but he’s still pretty good. Even if Lester is the Cubs’ top top tier option this Winter, is Shields in there somewhere in the pecking order?

According to Gordon Wittenmyer, Shields is right there with Lester. Wittenmyer reports that “insiders suggest” Lester and Shields are the Cubs’ top two free agent targets.

Shields, who turns 33 in December, has been consistently very good (high-3s, low-4s in WAR since pretty much forever), and consistently very durable (over 200 innings for eight straight seasons, over 225 for four straight seasons). His velocity is holding steady (he actually bumped it up slightly over the last few years), and he isn’t – right now – showing any signs of imminent decline. If you’re going to invest four years in a 33-year-old pitcher, Shields is probably the kind of guy you’re hoping for.

But how much is he going to cost? It sure is tough to peg. Shields will receive a qualifying offer, which may or may not have any impact on his price tag. If Lester and Max Scherzer are going to get five or six years, it seems very likely that Shields will get at least four. It feels like he’s probably going to approach $20 million per year, but let’s do a quick valuation check:

If we start Shields at 4.0 WAR in 2015 (aggressive, given that he was at 3.7 this past year; 4.4 the year before), drop him by 0.5 wins per season thereafter, and peg the cost of a win in free agency at $6 million, his four-year value looks like this:

2015 – 4.0 WAR, $24 million
2016 – 3.5 WAR, $21 million
2017 – 3.0 WAR, $18 million
2018 – 2.5 WAR, $15 million

Total: Four years, $78 million. And, what do you know, that’s approaching $20 million per year.

As with all upper tier free agents in the last four years, it seems like guys always get a touch more/longer than we initial project, so I won’t be surprised to see it take five years to get Shields. If so, he might start his ask at six years and $120 million. He’s not going to get that, but five years and $100 million may not be impossible. Most of the nine-figure (or close) free agent pitching deals in recent years have gone to guys under 30, however.

It’s hard to see the Cubs going to that level for a 33-year-old pitcher, even one as consistent and durable as Shields. But we’ll see. If the market isn’t quite as strong for Shields and he winds up closer to the four-year, $60 to $80 million range? I could see some serious attractiveness there. Then again, most teams probably would.

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