With only a handful of notable free agents left, and with James Shields the last remaining impact free agent, it’s understandable that he would get a lot of attention as the offseason winds down. Further, the longer he goes unsigned, the more understandable it becomes for analysts to return to various assumptions they’ve had about Shields’ value to the market, and re-evaluate in light of the advanced date. That, of course, can be a dangerous game, because we don’t know for sure that Shields isn’t still entertaining quite a bit of heavy interest behind the scenes, but, all things equal, it’s fair to assume he would have preferred to sign much earlier in the process. Because he hasn’t, we’re left to wonder what’s going on, and to search for answers.
Sometimes this takes us back to things that could have just as easily been pointed out back in November, like the most recent Shields piece from Ken Rosenthal. In it, he simply looks at the six largest deals for pitchers who signed at age 32 or older (Shields is 33), and notes the mixed bag of results. As you might expect, in several of the deals, there was a great year or two at the start, and then injuries/aging set in. Maybe, because of his long track record of success and health, we underestimated the impact that his age would have on his market. Age 33/34/35 pitchers can have excellent seasons, but the pitcher rarely looks like the guy he was at 27/28/29. Shields may be one of those exceptional guys, but teams may be reluctant to take that bet at a high-end price.
Which brings me to the other thing we probably should have discussed more in specific relation to Shields’ market: the likelihood of a relative avalanche of high-end starting pitchers reaching free agency after 2015. We talked about it a lot in relation to the Cole Hamels trade market, but not so much with respect to Shields, who is older than the big-time starters available next year (and would be an additional year older by then, too). If Shields was seeking the kind of contract some of those pitchers will command, then he may have found himself in a situation where a number of suitors were balancing the value of having Shields in 2015 against the value of paying a little more for perhaps a better, younger pitcher next year. Budgets, for most teams, are not infinite.
And then there’s always the imprecise impact of draft pick compensation. It didn’t seem like it would be a big deal for a guy like Shields, but maybe that, too, was underestimated.
Rosenthal now speculates that Shields probably won’t get more than four years at this point, and he probably won’t get $20 million per year, either.
It’s still very hard for me to see a dozen teams not jumping in if Shields was ready to sign a four-year, $60 million deal, and I still don’t think the Cubs are going to go after Shields at this point unless it were that kind of bargain.
If it is indeed a bargain, though, Phil Rogers specifically argues that the Cubs should be going after Shields at this point. Rogers acknowledges the biggest impediment to pursuing Shields – the fact that the Cubs would very likely prefer to reserve those funds for the pursuit of one of the high-end arms next offseason – but rightly points out that front offices have to be adroit, and sometimes must jump at opportunities when they present themselves. From there, he goes on to look at the budgetary issues, and concludes that it’s unlikely this all works out, especially if the front office wants a shot at a big arm next year.
I’d agree with all of that. If Shields wound up in a situation where he’d stake a steal-of-a-deal from the Cubs at this point, then they would simply have to consider stretching (either in this year’s budget or next year’s) to grab him (remember, by the way: Shields costs the Cubs only a second round pick to sign, which gives them a relative advantage over any team that stands to lose a first rounder). Maybe the Cubs could fit Shields in financially by shedding guys like Travis Wood and Welington Castillo for nothing more than the salary savings, by trying to save just a couple million on Edwin Jackson, and by moving other rotational depth guys. Maybe the contract could be creatively structured and heavily backloaded. If Shields’ contract were reasonable enough, maybe it’s possible.
But I’ll make the point again: if the price tag on Shields were to slip into the range where I believe the Cubs would say to themselves, “We simply cannot pass this up no matter the budgetary difficulty,” that’s a price range where so many other teams would also be involved. And I can see other teams out there with a little more need and fewer hurdles.
So, let yourself dream briefly on the idea of a Lester-Arrieta-Shields-Hammel-Hendricks/Wood/Wada/Whoever rotation, and then come back to what is probably reality.