With "Big Game James" Shields ready to start the biggest game of his life this evening, it only seems right to examine where Shields will be after the 2014 season comes to a close. Max Scherzer's departure looks like a foregone conclusion, but if the Tigers were to look for a free agent starter to fill the void, Shields could be the most reasonably priced big name on the market.
*2015 Steamer projection
Who is he?
James Shields has been one of the most consistent starters in baseball over the last several years, totaling 200 innings or more in each of his past eight seasons. He has won at least 11 games in each of those eight years, with an ERA under 4.00 in five of them. He put up 3.5 WAR or more in five of his seven seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays to begin his career, then compiled 8.1 WAR in two seasons as the ace of the Kansas City Royals' pitching staff. He has never been a big strikeout guy -- 2012 was the only season he struck out at least 22 percent of the batters he faced -- but his excellent command has helped him total a 3.60 career strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Why should we care?
The centerpiece of the controversial Wil Myers trade, Shields is a big reason why the Royals are playing in the World Series tonight. He allowed a 3.21 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 227 innings this season. His 243 innings pitched (playoffs included) were second only to David Price's 256 1/3 in the American League. Shields held opposing batters to a .298 on-base percentage while striking out four batters for every walk he allowed. He shouldered an even bigger load down the stretch, allowing a 2.62 ERA in 96 1/3 innings after the All-Star break in 2014. The Royals are 24-13 in games that Shields has started this season, including three wins in the postseason.
While some may look at Justin Verlander as a reason to avoid giving Shields the type of money he will command, I would argue that this comparison works in Shields' favor. Until the last couple years, Verlander has relied heavily on his velocity and superior stuff to get hitters out. Sure, he put everything together in 2011 and 2012, but his talent was a big reason why he was so dominant. The last two years have shown that Verlander can be quite pedestrian if everything doesn't work in his favor. Meanwhile, Shields has never relied as heavily on high strikeout totals. His career 5.7 percent walk rate is lower than Verlander's best season (5.9 percent in 2011), and Shields' career strikeout-to-walk ratio is also better than Verlander's. Simply put, Verlander has been the better thrower while Shields has been the better pitcher.
Why should we stay away?
The biggest concern surrounding Shields as he approaches free agency has to be his workload. While his run of eight consecutive seasons with 200+ innings pitched is impressive, it doesn't bode well for his future. Shields has thrown more pitches than anyone in baseball this season and will likely top the 4,000 pitch mark during tonight's game. Barring injury, he will reach the 2,000 innings pitched plateau in 2015. This record of consistency is remarkable, but with Shields likely to command such a high price in free agency, will teams be willing to give him more than a three or four year contract? The Tigers can ill afford an albatross contract if Shields were to begin his decline early into his next deal, and the risk of that decline increases with every year tacked onto the end of that contract.
Speaking of his contract, can the Tigers afford another $15-20 million pitcher? There are already three on staff, and Rick Porcello's salary will likely reach eight figures in 2015 as well. Both Porcello and David Price are free agents after the 2015 season -- so the load on the payroll could be short-lived -- but Shields' price tag could hinder the Tigers' efforts to pursue help elsewhere on the roster. Would the Tigers be able to fit him and Victor Martinez in under the luxury tax threshold without making another significant move? Would the Tigers spend money to fix center field and the bullpen if Shields is acquired? These are no-win questions unless the payroll reaches Dodgers-like levels, and recent history suggests that the Tigers have limits on how much they are willing to spend.
We're not sure how Big Game James earned his nickname, but he has failed to live up to the hype so far in the postseason. In nine career playoff starts, Shields is just 3-4 with a 5.19 ERA in 50 1/3 innings. His 3.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio is far below his career mark of 3.60, and he has failed to log six innings or more in six of those starts. To his credit, Shields' regular season numbers in September and October are close in line with his overall career numbers. However, a long stretch of postseason failures -- he has just three quality starts in nine playoff outings -- is a bit concerning for a team with World Series aspirations, even if the sample is fairly small.
While the bevy of back-of-the-rotation arms sitting in the high minors isn't very appealing, neither is the idea of paying another starting pitcher $15-20 million. Signing Shields would give the Tigers some insurance against both Price and Porcello leaving next winter, but the added expense could severely hinder the Tigers' ability to spend on more pressing needs this offseason. It's not out of the question -- and Shields will be cheaper than Scherzer or Jon Lester -- but odds are the Tigers look to someone already in the system or a cheaper free agent for the back of their rotation in 2015.