Examining the James Shields Contract Dilemma

The Padres have an available Shields on their hands. What's the risk of taking him on?

With most of the starting pitching dominoes toppled in this free agent market, any teams left looking to supplement what they already have in house will likely look to the trade market for that boost.

It’s not uncommon to see arms change places this time of year. Nathan Eovaldi did it around this time last year. The same can be said for prospect Joe Ross and righty Jesse Hahn, both traded before the calendar flipped.

But a name that has popped up at various spots very early into his contract is San Diego Padres right-hander James Shields. Shields turned 34 on Sunday and is coming off arguably the worst season of his 10-year big league career. Despite a move to accommodating Petco Park and a huge strikeout spike, Shields saw his home run rate swell to essentially a career high while walking hitters at an unprecedented clip.

Shields’ 1.1 mark via Fangraphs' WAR was easily his worst at any point in his career -- for what that's worth. And that dates back to his 2006 debut season with the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays (1.7 fWAR in 124.2 innings). For the ninth straight year, Shields pitched for 200-plus innings, but outside of that, it’s unclear exactly what or how much value he provided.

A Bounceback Year?

Banking on a bounceback from a 34-year-old pitcher is a dicey proposition. Then again, there are pitchers who have aged gracefully while holding up this sort of workload. A name that comes to mind is the quasi-retired Mark Buehrle, who, in 2015, came four outs shy of completing a 15-year stretch of 200 or more innings. And while Buehrle’s stuff and velocity diminish, his effectiveness stayed roughly the same.

Expecting that from Shields is a fool’s errand, but it’s not impossible. Buehrle has the upper hand of being left handed -- which always seems to favor these types -- and a pretty low baseline from where his stuff could fall from to where it ended up.

At the advent of the PITCHf/x era -- dating back to 2002 -- Buehrle was only averaging 86.6 miles per hour with his fastball. Even as a 27-year-old, he was basically pumping late-Reagan era gas. So he had to figure out pretty quickly -- or maybe he just always was that way -- how to pitch with that repertoire. That seems to be less effective for pitchers who have to work their way down from higher peaks, such as Shields, who routinely worked in the 92 to 93 miles per hour range with the Rays. It can be done as a right-hander -- Jered Weaver and Felix Hernandez are examples -- but it’s increasingly rarer than with lefties.

But throw out the analytics. Throw out the statistics, and maybe it was just a bad year for Shields. Don’t forget that he was switching leagues, and despite conventional “wisdom” saying the American League is harder, you’re also talking about a guy making a late-career switch after pitching his entire time in the other league.

He also had to hit, for what it’s worth. Shields never posted more than eight plate appearances in a season in the American League. He had more plate appearances in 2015 (74) than the rest of his career combined (50). Does it mean something? Well, probably not, but it is an adjustment that a human being had to make.

Finding the Right Fit

So maybe Shields does have a bounceback in him. An enterprising team would surely take that gamble, right?

As someone around the Minnesota Twins and their fanbase on a regular basis, I often hear grousing about dealing for a “name” player. Shields’ name comes up a lot, despite the fact that he didn’t play all that well in 2015 and that his results in 18 appearances against the Twins -- 4.06 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, and 6.4 strikeouts per nine -- aren't even that good.

Yes, Shields brings the name factor wherever he goes, but what’s actually at stake for a team trading for Shields?

Shields inked a four-year deal with the Padres in late February worth around $75 million, with a club option for a fifth year. In all honesty, that is a pretty sensible deal given the starting pitching climate seen not only last offseason but also -- and especially -- this one. And at that point in the winter, Shields could have easily taken a make-good, one-year deal and tried to re-enter a perhaps more accommodating -- but as we have seen, more saturated -- market with different, perhaps better, suitors.

Instead, Shields basically signed a deal with a two-year shell, in which he can opt out after two years and hit the market again before his age-35 season. Coming off a bad season, that seems pretty unlikely, right? This writer is less convinced.

A Long-Term Buy?

Next year’s unrestricted free agent market boasts Stephen Strasburg and a lot of "meh." Even when including club options, the list isn't great.

Brett Anderson, Clay Buchholz, Andrew Cashner, Jered Weaver, Travis Wood and C.J. Wilson Wilson are the best of the rest. Maybe Jonathon Niese’s $10 million club option is bought out, but if Ray Searage works his magic, that’s not likely. There are sensible club options on Josh Collmenter ($2.5 million), Gio Gonzalez ($12 milion), and Jason Hammel ($10 million), and there is the potential that Kris Medlen or Matt Moore could be cut loose if they aren’t up to par. CC Sabathia has a vesting option, but who knows where his body will be one season from now?

So even if Shields has a 3.0-win season, the odds of him opting out seem to be pretty good. Or, to re-frame it, the odds of his being the first to opt-in with this recent advent of those types of contracts seems unlikely.

So what is Shields leaving on the table if he opts out? First, it’s worth noting that if he opts out, he can be slapped with a Qualifying Offer, which will most certainly be upwards of $16 million next year. That’s an easy decline for Shields -- he’s opting out of far more than that -- and an easy offer for the team as a result. And again, given the paucity of other options, it’s probably not much of a deterrent to a team looking to acquire him. A Shields opt-out means $21 million on the table for both 2017 and 2018, as well as at least $2 million for the buyout of the club option for 2019 -- Shields’ age-37 season.

Would he really leave $45 million on the table? Ultimately, it depends on if he can get more than that guaranteed in his next deal. And again, due to the others on the market, that seems likely. He’ll almost certainly not match the average annual value promised in his current pact, but guaranteed cash is king, and he should easily surpass the $45 million total.

But wait a second. What would be so bad about Shields pitching well enough to earn his $21 million salary and opting out, especially if a team and the Padres can agree to compensation to make this deal work? Honestly, the downside there is nothing, but again it’s banking on Shields returning to form. There is some upside there, and Shields opting out and netting a team a pick when he signs elsewhere is a nice bonus.

But the downside certainly seems to outweigh the risk. What if the 2015 Shields wasn’t an aberration, and he continues to be so-so or worse? Then he opts in, and the team is ultimately on the hook suddenly for a total commitment of three years and $65 million. That’s an awful lot to take on, especially for a pitcher who would then be one more year down a likely decline trail.

All of this is before even considering that the latest reports suggest the Padres are still thinking they can get pretty strong value for Shields. Maybe they’re right. Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe he’ll pitch another full season in Petco and shop his wares on the market in a year. After all, Petco played much smaller last year than in previous years.

Via StatCorner, check out the park factors for extra-base hits (where 100 is average and above means more accommodating for hitters):

Year Park Factor for LHH (2B/3B) Park Factor for LHH (HR) Park Factor for RHH (2B/3B) Park Factor for RHH (HR)
2015 100 111 91 100
93 97 94 81
2013 98 94 96 87

Baseball Reference also gave Petco a 95/95 mark (batting, pitching). That still favors pitchers, but those were the highest marks since the park opened in 2004. So again, maybe the evolution of that park contributes to the downside of Shields’ value coming back.

Ultimately, there’s probably at least some reason to have optimism that Shields can return to form, but really, only the Padres have any incentive to find that out.