We’ve now found ourselves in February with only about 10 days left until pitchers and catchers begin to report to Spring Training. While top names like Hanley Ramirez and Max Scherzer have found homes for the next half decade and beyond, one big name still remains without a team for the 2015 MLB season.
James Shields, the Opening Day starter for the World Series runner-up Kansas City Royals, has yet to sign a contract as the season looms in the distance. Not unlike Kyle Lohse from two seasons ago, who wound up signing in the middle of March, it appears that Scott Boras may have overestimated the market and potentially hurt his value in the process.
Reports have come out throughout the offseason that the 33-year old is looking for a contract valued anywhere from $100-$125 million over the course of five years, the top end of that potentially making him the 5th highest paid player in all of baseball. Given his track record and expected output over the next few years, it’s clear that a contract of that size (or anywhere in that ballpark, really) would be completely unjustified and an enormous risk for the team that pulls the trigger on it.
As noted, Shields is already 33 years old and unfortunately for him has nearly 2,000 innings already logged in the majors. Once Shields throws his 90th inning this year, he will join a group of just 198 starting pitchers over the course of baseball history to hit the 2,000 inning mark. Mileage is certainly a concern, as those innings will inevitably begin to catch up to him in more ways than one.
The first, and probably most glaring, is velocity. Over the past few years Shields has experienced something that not many pitchers deal with while they’re aging; he’s actually throwing his fastball harder. After throwing his fastball at an average of 91 miles per hour during the 2009 season, Shields hurled it at 92.4 this past season, all while throwing it more than he has since 2010.
It’s not a question of if his fastball will start to fall off, but when, which is incredibly concerning considering his already declining strikeout rate. His K% has dropped each of the last three years even with increased velocity, so not being able to work off of hard stuff may be tough for him, especially since his best pitch is his changeup.
He has improved his walk rate, which is certainly a positive, but it hasn’t helped him consistency at all. This past year, it was a toss-up over which version of Shields that you were going to get, the July version in which he struck out 38 batters in 37 innings and posted a 2.63 ERA, or the June version where he posted a 4.88 ERA, had only 18 strikeouts in 31 innings and posted a 1.59 WHIP.
On top of his month-to-month inconsistencies, he’s had some real troubles in October despite being billed “Big Game James”. Over the course of his career, he’s posted a 5.46 ERA throughout postseason play and has gotten absolutely tattooed the past three postseason appearances in particular. He’s simply not someone that plays up the level of competition that he sees after the regular season concludes, which should be another red flag for those in the market for a starting pitcher.
With all of this being said, I would certainly feel comfortable if my team was rolling into Spring Training with Shields as my number three pitcher, but that’s simply not going to be the case for the team that signs him. You’re going to be looking at a 4 or 5 year commitment that could cost upwards of $80 million. After all of the failed contracts that we’ve seen handed out in free agency throughout the last few years I would be very cautious in signing Shields, as he very well may be the next big flop.