The Padres have now officially inked right-handed starter James Shields to a four-year, $75 million contract. There is much to like in this deal, but also some reason for concern.
What’s To Like
Since a subpar rookie season in 2006, Shields has been one of the most consistent starters in baseball. While he has only once finished in the top five for the Cy Young Award balloting, he has been a very dependable commodity for both Tampa Bay and Kansas City, pitching at least 200 innings every season since 2007. His numbers over the last four seasons are especially telling. According to Baseball-Reference.com, he has averaged 233 innings, a 14-10 record, 34 starts, 206 strikeouts, a 3.17 ERA, and a 1.16 WHIP.
Last season, he went 14-8 with a 3.21 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP, and 180 strikeouts, helping the Royals to within one game of a World Series Championship. While his poor start in game 7 was costly, there can be little doubt that had they not traded for him in January, 2013 (ironically for Wil Myers, his new Padre teammate) the Royals might not have even made the playoffs.
Bear in mind also that Shields’ numbers are from the American League, where he has to face the Designated Hitter. No more in San Diego, where he will also pitch half of his games at Petco Park, the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in major league baseball. Shields’ addition also makes the starting rotation even better.
Before adding him, the already-strong rotation featured Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, and several candidates for the last two spots, including Brandon Morrow, Robbie Erlin, Odrisamer Desaigne, and rookie Matt Wisler. Assuming that Ross were numbers one, two, and three in the rotation prior to adding Shields, they are now numbers two, three, and four, assuming Shields becomes the ace. And now, there is only one slot available to the remaining competitors.
In plain English, this means that their rotation now stacks up far better against their competitors than it did in 2014, when the Padres already had one of the best set of starting pitchers in baseball.
Lastly, this is a good deal because general manager A.J. Preller did not have to guarantee a fifth season to Shields. With a four year guarantee (plus an opt-out clause after 2016), Preller has minimized the risk for the Padres.
But this takes us directly to the…
Reason for Concern
While it’s true the Padres are getting a solid arm in Shields, it’s also true that signing a pitcher Shields’ age to more than three guaranteed years is risky. Already in his career, Shields has logged 1,910 innings, or an average of 227 innings per season.
It has been noted elsewhere that during this period, only Max Scherzer (recently signed by the Washington Nationals) has logged more.
While this speaks to his durability, it also increases the likelihood that at some point, Shields’ arm is going to break down.
A Cautionary Tale
Many years ago, the Padres dodged a bullet in a very similar situation. Just prior to Spring Training in 1998, San Diego acquired Kevin Brown from the Marlins. As with Shields, 1998 was going to be his age-33 season. But what a brilliant season it was: in 35 starts, he went 18-7 with a 2.38 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP, and 257 strikeouts to go with 257 innings, leading them to the National League Pennant.
That was Brown’s only season with San Diego.
In the offseason, Brown signed a hefty seven-year, $105 million contract with the Dodgers (and bear in mind, nine-figure contracts were far more rare than they are today, so this contract was a huge deal).
Here are Brown’s numbers for his first two seasons in Dodger Blue:
W-L IP K ERA WHIP
1999: 18-9 252 221 3.00 1.06
2000: 13-6 230 216 2.58 0.99
Very good numbers from a very good pitcher.
But then, it happened: in the third season, Brown pitched in only 20 games (19 starts), even while maintaining a solid 2.65 ERA. The next season, 2002, Brown pitched in only 63.2 innings (10 starts, 17 games). After another solid season in 2003 (32 starts), Brown was shipped to the Yankees, where he made 35 starts and 205 innings over two seasons, to go with a 4.95 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP.
Granted, Kevin Brown and James Shields are two different pitchers, and in two different eras. Even still, the potential parallels exist: assuming that Shields does as well as Brown did, the Padres can expect some turbulence along the way. If that happens (This year? 2018? Some time in between?), the contract could look more like a boondoggle than a solid move.
Worth the Risk?
But in baseball, you have to take risks like this. Again, there are good reasons why San Diego (and other potential suitors) were not willing to go above four guaranteed seasons. And with Bud Black’s stellar bullpen, Shields will be more likely to be pulled after regularly after 6 or 7 innings, rather than 8 or 9. This will lessen the wear-and-tear on his arm.
And for the reasons given above and “What’s to Like,” this remains a worthwhile deal. Yes, there are other questions as well that need to be addressed (team offense, outfield defense, a right-handed-heavy lineup, etc.). But that will have to wait for another blog post.