One of the curses of playing for a small-market team like the Tampa Bay Rays is the constant trade rumors swirling around the team's star players. For instance, James Shields was the subject of rumor after rumor for nearly half a decade in Tampa, culminating in his long (yet rather tepid) stay on the free agent market last offseason. Finally, in mid-February, Shields signed a four-year, $75 million contract with the San Diego Padres, who went all Mad Max: Fury Road on the trade market in hopes of establishing themselves as an NL contender.
So we're done, right? No more Shields rumors?
Not so fast. Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune reports that the Padres, who flopped to a 74-88 record this season, will "listen on just about anyone on the roster" this offseason. Lin goes on to specify Shields, who is due $21 million for each of the next three seasons (plus a 2019 team option), as a potential trade candidate in hopes of improving the Padres' payroll flexibility.
The Tigers are hoping to avoid spending big on a free agent pitcher this offseason, but could Shields' short contract and potentially low trade cost entice them into a deal?
Who is he?
Tigers fans are very familiar with Shields after two excellent seasons with the Kansas City Royals in 2013 and 2014, but he has been around a lot longer than that. In fact, he was a 16th round (!) pick by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2000 who did not make his major league debut until 2006.
The slow, rocky ascent didn't diminish what he has been able to do at the major league level, though. Shields has pitched over 2,000 career innings with a 3.74 ERA and 3.46 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has one All-Star appearance to his name, in 2011 when he led the major leagues with 11 complete games. While he isn't normally one to finish games that regularly, he does eat a ton of innings. The 2015 season was Shields' ninth consecutive year with at least 31 starts and 200 innings pitched.
Known primarily for his lethal changeup, Shields throws all four of his pitches regularly. Opponents are hitting just .208 with a 20.7 percent whiff rate off his changeup since 2007, and not much better against everything else. Shields also throws a mid-80s cutter, a curveball that sits around 80 miles per hour, and a low-90s fastball. His ability to manipulate and command his fastball has long been his calling card, resulting in a 6.3 percent career walk rate.
Why should we care?
Shields only has a few seasons of true ace-level production under his belt. However, unlike Anibal Sanchez, Shields has combined his solid No. 2 starter production with near-unmatched durability in today's game. He has been worth at least 3.0 WAR in seven of his 10 major league seasons, including a 124-inning rookie year in 2006. His early 30s have agreed with him as well; Shields has a 3.30 ERA in 1135 innings across the last five years.
Trading for a starter could work out better for the Tigers in the long run. While Shields' current contract is heavily backloaded -- he's due $21 million over each of the next three seasons -- it is much shorter than the deals that most current free agents are looking to sign. With the Tigers' new front office putting more emphasis on building from the farm system, Shields' contract is long enough to bridge the gap to a young starter without being a hindrance down the road. The team option for 2019 gives the Tigers even more flexibility if Shields continues to produce at a high level.
Why should we stay away?
While there are benefits to Shields' three-year contract, it's still a lot of money to pay a starting pitcher in their mid-30s. Including the buyout on his 2019 option, Shields is due a guaranteed $65 million over the next three seasons. Most pitchers don't age particularly well into their mid-30s, and paying a 36-year-old starter $21 million sounds like a recipe for disaster. Add in the prospect cost it will take to get Shields, and the Tigers may get more bang for their buck -- even if it's for more years -- on the free agent market.
Then there's Shields' 2015 numbers. After posting 7.3 WAR in two seasons with the Royals, Shields allowed a 3.91 ERA and 4.45 FIP in 202 1/3 innings for the Padres last season. His home run rate ballooned, his walk rate skyrocketed, and opponents got on base at a .327 clip against him, his highest rate against since 2010. Shields has allowed a fair number of homers before, and has always pitched in stingy home ballparks, but 2015 resulted in Shields' highest HR/FB ratio of his career. While the troubles seem somewhat related to a team-wide aversion to pitching at Petco Park, he still allowed 14 dingers in 17 road starts.
Will he end up in Detroit?
The Tigers and Padres seem like natural trade partners -- Dixon Machado, come on down -- but trading Shields right now would be little more than a salary dump for the Padres. He's coming off his worst season in the last half-decade, and his peripherals are somewhat concerning. The Tigers are one of a few teams who can eat Shields' entire salary, but whether they want to is another story. There's no smoke around this idea so far (let alone any fire), so we'll wait and see if anything develops.