All eyes are on James Shields because there really isn’t anywhere else to look at this point. All of the other big name signings have the ink dried on their shiny new contracts that have more zeros on the end of them than I’ll see in my entire lifetime. Only the no frills, innings eater extraordinaire remains as the big fish in the little pond that once contained the other elite 2014 free agents.
Until the last week or so, it was easy to forget Shields was even still out there. It’s not shocking Jon Heyman of CBS Sports would do a piece on him yesterday, but it is odd that I would get stuck on a five word aside in his first paragraph.
While there’s a thought being advanced out there that the Padres ? one team known to be interested in James Shields — may hold a home-state advantage in the mostly mysterious Shields market, a few other teams, including at least one surprise, are said to be at least in contact with the camp of the top remaining free agent righthander.
Including At Least One Surprise
That phrase really got the juices flowing. I’ve seen some fan speculation that as Shields hits the February clearance racks, the Pirates could go bargain hunting. In some ways, it seemed plausible as the front office always looks for ways to get better than market value. Could the mystery team be the good guys in black and gold? Maybe the market has dried up as a number of teams looking for starting pitching already have their guys. Maybe some are scared off by the first round pick bounded to Shields by the rejected qualifying offer. Either way, the situation has begun to look a lot like the one Ervin Santana found himself in last off season right down to the team he’s leaving. It’s not good to be the last one on the dance floor for pitchers, because you never know what or who is still willing to dance with you. Santana ultimately settled for the qualifying offer he rejected from the Royals when he signed with the Braves. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Santana signed a team friendly multi-year deal with the Minnesota, but still had two weeks to shop for Christmas presents and get them under the tree this year.
From the context of the article, we can’t say who the ‘surprise’ team is, but we can deduce that a number of teams are not. We know the Padres, Blue Jays, Cubs and Marlins aren’t the dark horse team because they’re all mentioned as teams with some level of interest. Heyman also rules out the Brewers as having their priorities out of order while dealing with their bullpen, and notes that none of the Yankees, Red Sox, Giants, Dodgers, A’s, Angels and Cardinals have interest. Clearly 40% of the league can’t be the surprise.
This is the part of the of the piece where I really get into deep into speculation and eliminate teams based entirely on inference. I’m going to further rule out the Tigers, Mariners, Braves, Mets, or Rangers. If any of those teams are the ‘surprise’ then it would be the baseball equivalent of going shopping with your mom to pick out clothing for your birthday present and pretending that you didn’t see it coming after you tear open the paper for grandma two weeks later. If that’s what Heyman’s source is getting at we have two very different scopes of the meaning. We’re down to half the league.
While I wouldn’t put it past Ruben Amaro Jr. to sign a 33 year old pitcher to a seven year deal, Shields wasn’t a Phillie first, so it would surprise me to see him head to the other side of the state. The organization also seems to have begrudgingly entered some kind of a quasi-rebuilding phase as the conversation has shifted from incoming to outgoing players this year. Shields’ original club, the Rays, seem like they’re in the same situation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I don’t think the Nationals are big enough a-holes to also sign Shields. What a luxury having a fourth starter capable of eating 225 innings! The Reds might be on their last stand before they begin their decline into rebuilding, but it’s difficult for me to comprehend where the money would come from for them to afford Shields. They spent $114 million last year according to Cot’s and they’re likely on the hook for more this season.
That leaves nine teams: the Orioles, Indians, White Sox, Royals, Twins, Astros, Rockies, Diamondbacks and the Pirates who all fit the bill as a surprise suitor. Some seem more likely than others, but none can be reasonably ruled out beyond the other in my opinion.
Can the Pirates Afford Shields?
Before we lay out what the Pirates can and cannot afford to do for Shields, I think we first need to determine what the market could conceivably bear. I doubt he gets the same as he might have gotten earlier in the offseason with speculation that he walked away from a $110 million offer, but I doubt he settles for a similar deal to the one Santana did last year. Shields is probably a step below the nine figure deals of Max Scherzer and Jon Lester even in a prime market, but he’s also a step above pitchers like Brandon McCarthy and Santana. Both got around fifty million. At thirty-three, I’m not sure how many teams would be willing to give him the fourth year those two got. In the end, I think Shields gets 3 years $58 million, including an option for a fourth year that automatically vests if he pitches ‘x’ innings in 2017.
Let’s assume $58 million includes an option buyout and the contract yields around $18.5 million a year. The Pirates are already heading into record spending territory, but the short answer, according to Kevin Creagh is yes, they can absorb that contract. He estimates the Pirates could spend around $115 million and Shields would bring them in around $5 million under that.
But let’s look at this a different way as well. The Pirates were said to have had a competitive offer for McCarthy rejected. If he got 12 per year from the Dodgers, I would think the Pirates had to come in at least in that neck of the woods. This suggests to me that the Pirates know they have another $10-13 million to play with. It’s possible that some of that money was shifted to posting and signing Jung-ho Kang, but we’re talking a roughly $40-50 million commitment compared to a $16 million dollar guarantee. There is still anywhere from $24-34 M left over. Add to the that roughly $5 million in savings over two years from dealing Travis Snider and at the high end, they’re still a minimum of $6 million per year away from my estimated price tag. I couldn’t tell you for sure if they’d be able or willing to extend themselves that far, but truth be told, they’re close enough that it’s conceivable.
One thing is certain. The Pirates’ front office has been full of surprises so far this offseason. From the return of AJ Burnett to the Kang posting to the Snider trade, very little news has come with much advanced warning. Even the big news. The Pirates are amongst the teams who could shock the world and steal Shields. They probably could afford him as well. However, personal factors might make it unlikely that he signs here. While the action is light, there is still a good chance that Shields finds a better offer elsewhere with the risk-averse Pirates’ financial philosophy resistant to overextend themselves, particularly on years, to overcome the chance for Shields to play in the city he resides in — San Diego. I could see the Pirates doing the $18.5 million a year more than I can the 3 years. The loss of the first round draft pick, although low in the first round, probably weighs heavily on the discussion, as well. Of course, they haven’t exactly stuck to the script so far this winter and they’ve shown they have some tricks up their sleeve. Whether or not they have a spectacular twist of a finish is another thing entirely.
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