Shields' value goes beyond numbers
Don't misunderstand why James Shields is still unsigned. This simply is the free-agent market at work. In this case, it's important to separate the baseball and the business.
In terms of the baseball, Shields remains about as respected as any player in the game, both in production and makeup. In an odd twist, his greatest strengths -- durability, consistency, production -- might also be the things working against him in the marketplace.
Shields has been such a workhorse and has thrown so many pitches that it's easy to wonder how much he has left in the tank. At 33, there's no indication he's in decline, but it's fair to ask the question.
As Randy Johnson told reporters one spring, "If you guys keep writing me off every year, one of these years you'll be right."
That's how it is with Shields. He will not pitch forever. But there's every reason to think he's going to make some team very, very happy about their decision to sign him.
According to fangraphs.com, Shields' fastball averaged a career-high 92.4 mph last season. His strikeout rate was down slightly, but so was his walk rate. Still, in the past eight seasons, Shields leads the Majors with 1,785 2/3 innings. Only Justin Verlander has started more games and thrown more pitches in that time.
Can Shields be expected to produce at this level for, say, another three years? Another four? Baseball's other two free-agent aces this offseason -- Max Scherzer and Jon Lester -- are 30 and 31, respectively.
Scherzer got a backloaded seven-year, $210 million contract from the Nationals. Lester got six years and $155 million from the Cubs. So many teams have been burned by long-term contracts, especially to pitchers, that Shields probably was never going to get the numbers Scherzer and Lester got.
The marketplace can be a cold and cruel world. It's where you get a tough-love assessment of how others value you as opposed to how you value yourself. So the market for Shields appears to have been reset in the past week or two as Spring Training approaches.
Shields surely has lowered his expectations. Now a reasonable deal might be for three or four years at around $20 million per season.
The Padres would seem to be a perfect fit given that Shields is a native Californian, and San Diego is in a win-now mode. In this dating game, it's about finding a team with room in the budget.
At this late date, several teams that might have had previous interest in Shields -- the Tigers, Red Sox, Rangers -- have filled out their rotation and are anxious to get to Spring Training and begin assessing their club. However, other teams -- the Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers -- appear to be back in the mix with the price most likely falling.
That said, every team would love to have Shields. This is about business, not baseball. Every general manager appreciates how good he has been during his nine big league seasons. Teams that have done their homework understand that Shields will bring an important intangible to whatever club gets him.
Shields is the definition of a leader. His work ethic rubs off on other players. So do his expectations and his understanding that winning is the only thing that matters. The Rays and Royals will tell you that Shields played a role in creating a winning culture on their teams.
Shields took the ball on days when he had his best stuff, and he took it on days he had nothing. He thought those days were important, too, because he has always believed he can figure something out and spare the bullpen extra work.
Shields showed young players how to prepare for starts, how to train, in short -- how to be Major Leaguers. In that way, he's invaluable.