It’s no secret that Tommy and I are James Shields fans—you don’t orchestrate an entire day of content around the anniversary of a pitcher’s debut without a degree of admiration and appreciation. Life has a way of throwing challenges your way, even on the most trivial fronts—like baseball team analyzing and following. Shields’ 2010 represented a hurdle, and his recovery from 2010 was a talking point all along. On the day before the Rays started the 2011 season, I wrote this:
I used to defend Upton as much as anyone because I never understood why we attempt to make villains of our own, but I’ve given up on that battle in the search of something winnable. Shields should be winnable. Heck, it shouldn’t be a battle. Even if 2010 sucked, he had four strong seasons before it. He has the lore, he has the nondescript off the field life and the qualitative stuff that folks usually eat up, but it feels like that goes out the window with him and that sort of burns me up. I’m going to be nervous for all of his starts because I want him to succeed in the worst way. If you asked me which of the Rays I’d like to have a career year—if I could somehow guarantee such a thing—I’d probably juggle between Dan Johnson and Shields before deciding on the latter.
Sometimes wishes come true. The flames that consumed me at times last season is now busy torching the ridiculous comments from last season. No longer does the term hittable come up, unless to mock last year’s assertions—funny, because Shields’ line drive rate is higher this season than his career average, but nobody seems to notice. All the lame nicknames, Yields, Big Blast James, Big Lame James, throw them in the fire; only things left will be the ashes and blisters of blazing. Watch as the smoke grows higher and the flames more lurid, this season is the vindication of a pitcher who may have had a lost season, but never lost the stuff that made him. No, James Shields never lost the stuff.
Pardon the over the top paragraph, but that’s how good Shields has been in 2011, and I just want to make that clear.
In the history of baseball, perhaps no position is more susceptible to dramatic skill changes than the pitcher. A new grip, a new delivery, a new pitch can be the catalyst to an unpredictable chain of events. Every pitcher’s calculus is different, and what works for some will not work for others. The countless examples of pitchers who tinker then find success are matched with those who tinkered and found nothing.
A middling innings eater with a 4.88 earned run average, Esteban Loaiza took Don Cooper seriously and learned a cutter. Over the rest of his career, he managed a 4.30 earned run average, and made two All-Star teams while almost winning a Cy Young award. It took Cliff Lee a return trip to the minors before he turned into one of the game’s best pitchers. Kyle Farnsworth learned a cutter and is now one of the game’s best closers—but I guess he always had the mentality down pat anyways.
Shields didn’t learn a new pitch—he always had a great change and a good curve—he just altered his style. Can that lead to improved results over a sustained time? Maybe, but improved results do not necessarily mean a sub-2.5 earned run average, which is where Shields is right now.
All along, the assumption has been that Shields will be dealt after the season. It followed the Rays previous pattern and even Peter Gammons wrote about it in an authoritative manner. Then, well, Shields went and turned into a mini-Roy Halladay. Now, the Rays might not be able to trade him because the fair value might be beyond the grips of reality. That’s life as a Rays fan right now. You have to hope a player signs a team-friendly deal early in his career, then becomes incredibly underpaid throughout—more so than normal—so the return on investment is so ridiculous, that it eclipses the best offer out there.
Pitchers with Shields’ contract, durability, and ability are not often dealt at this stage in their career. Shields has three years remaining, at modest values of $7 million, $9 million, and $12 million. Each of those years is a club option, meaning an injury or blatant atrophy of skills would bring less of a sunk cost than, say, Scott Kazmir’s contract. Pitchers are the most unpredictable gorillas in the zoo, so having that cost certainty and built-in risk minimization plays huge to Shields’ value.
Given Shields’ prior performance, it’s comfortable to think he could be a bargain throughout those seasons, especially if the inflation rate on the cost of a win increases. There is a point to be made that perhaps the Rays should keep Shields regardless, as $7 million is still within their price range, and the subtractions of B.J. Upton and Johnny Damon will further diminish the payroll. Although, some of that cash will be redistributed to the arbitration eligible players like Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, and Jeff Niemann (should he not be traded).
All of this creates a perfect storm that might be nonpareil in the league’s recent history. It’s difficult to find a pitcher traded with Shields quality and contract situation, which makes a comparison harder to make. In the build-up to the Matt Garza trade, I made a Dan Haren comp, which turned out to be pretty close. I’m not suggesting a trade can’t happen because it lacks a precedent—if that were the case, then baseball would be boring—but at this point I just can’t offer a similar situation with an exact estimate on the value.
In fact, the closest I found was Haren once again. He had three years remaining at a reasonable cost with one club option, Shields has three, which might not alter a ton, but I think it alters his value some. Now, whether a team will give up a package that constitutes fair value or not is something beyond my pay grade, although I do wonder if Texas—who tried to acquire Garza last offseason—might be willing to pay up for Shields. And if not, there are worse realities than having Shields around for another season.