The Detroit Tigers enter this offseason with no apparent plan to spend more than a modest amount of money to fill required gaps in their roster. As a result, they appear ready to fully embrace another 90-loss season. General manager Al Avila has identified starting pitching as an area the team will focus on to add to their very weak roster. The free agent market has a healthy number of quality arms available, but nearly all of which will simply be too expensive or just plain uninterested in signing with the Tigers. Frustrated blogger feelings aside, we must still sift through the dregs of this market’s offerings to identify some possibly matches.
When reviewing the Tigers’ current starting pitching situation, two things stick out. One is that there are only two names you can write in for guaranteed rotation spots all of 2019: Michael Fulmer and Jordan Zimmermann. Matthew Boyd has a lock on a job, but he is one of the stronger candidates to be traded this offseason. The Tigers will likely give Daniel Norris a shot at a starting spot out of spring training, but he has yet to prove he can remain healthy and effective for a full year. Recent signing Matt Moore could open the year in the rotation, but he was demoted to the bullpen last year with the Texas Rangers due to ineffectiveness.
That still leaves the job to pick up any extra starts to the likes of Blaine Hardy, Spencer Turnbull, Buck Farmer, Matt Hall, and others. The Tigers best “innings eater” last year was Boyd, who logged 170 innings. The next closest? Francisco Liriano at just 133 2⁄3 innings pitched. Put simply, the Tigers need someone they can plug into the rotation for a full season to absorb work that would otherwise fall to a slew of young, unproven arms that would risk being crushed under the demands of being thrust into heavy workloads (not to mention the added challenge of facing MLB hitters).
Enter James Shields, a pitcher who tied for third in the American League in innings pitched and who can likely be had at a very modest salary this winter.
Why would he be a fit?
We all know from the past two-plus years of watching him pitch on the south side of Chicago that this isn’t the “Big Game James” of yesteryear. Long gone are his days of Cy Young consideration and front-line starter billing, but what remains is something he has done his whole career: eat innings. From 2006 to 2018, the MLB leader in innings pitched is our old friend, Justin Verlander. Right behind him? James Shields. What about Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels, Jon Lester, CC Sabathia, and Zach Greinke? Sorry, you just don’t stack up to what James and Justin have done.
Even as he has declined, Shields averaged six innings per start for the White Sox last year, rebounding nicely from a career-low innings count in 2017.
He has had to reinvent himself quite a bit to get there, though. His fastball velocity has consistently dropped year after year from its peak in 2014 (93.4 miles per hour) to just 90 mph in 2018.
Here’s a chart showing how slow James Shields’ fastball is now
In his prime, Shields relied primarily on his fastball and changeup.
As he began to lose velocity and his ERA grew, he finally dropped his arm slot in 2017 and started using his curveball and cutter more often. This helped him limit the damage and extend his outings again. His breaking ball offerings are nothing special, but he has learned to use them enough to keep hitters honest and off his ever-slowing fastball.
At the end of the day, while his overall line isn’t impressive from an ERA standpoint — he managed a 4.53 ERA and 5.09 FIP last year — the fact that he logged 204 innings of work and kept his ERA at a respectable level is nothing to scoff at, particularly for the Tigers, where he would have lead the team in innings and his ERA would have been just behind Zimmarmann’s. Its not sexy, but it’s the kind of work the Tigers really need for 2019. This would allow them to carefully work in their younger arms into more controllable situations so as not to overwhelm their young talent in a rebuilding year (not to mention guard against inevitable injuries).
Why wouldn’t he be a fit?
Honestly, I have nothing for why he wouldn’t be a fit on this team, other than he may just not be interested in joining a team with no desire to win at this point in his career.
That said, it’s highly unlikely any team with aspirations of contending in 2019 will see him as an upgrade to their current pitching staff, so he will likely end up simply taking the best offer he can get if he intends to pitch in in 2019. The Tigers have no designs on winning in 2019 (as we know of), so his ERA isn’t a huge issue. If he stays healthy and eats innings, he’s a productive player for this team.
Will he sign with Detroit?
Its anyone’s guess at this point. He’s unlikely to get more than a one year deal from any team. Chicago could reunite with him after declining his $16 million option, but they have a stable of MLB ready young arms they need to find work for. With more budding talent breaking into the majors this year, they are probably looking for a more impactful arm to add as they try to work back into contention. The Tigers just need a veteran to go out there every fifth day and give the bullpen and young guys rest. A move to a larger home ballpark and an improved defense behind him should keep the games close if he is on the mound.
He certainly isn’t going to wow anyone with his stuff, but if you’re honestly looking at what the Tigers need in 2019, he fits well. Expect the Tigers at be linked to him at some point because there are several reasons he fits here this year.