The Padres had already constructed a delicious sundae of an offseason, sweetening what was a historically terrible offense by adding Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Derek Norris and Will Middlebrooks. Just as fans were getting ready to enjoy the treat, A.J. Preller added a cherry in the form of James Shields, signing the righty, and final prize of the winter, to a four-year deal on Monday.
San Diego is without doubt a contender in the NL West, and will be a trendy pick to make a run in the playoffs. The offense has been getting all the attention this offseason, but Preller was able to focus on that side because of the team’s already strong pitching staff. With Shields joining Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner and Ian Kennedy, the Padres can match up with any rotation in the league.
Shields had a nearly-exact career-average season in 2014, which is to say he was very good but not quite great. He went 14-8 with a 3.21 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 1.18 WHIP and 180 strikeouts in 227 innings. He surpassed 200 innings for the eighth consecutive season, and made at least 33 starts for the seventh season in a row. Shields also helped the Royals make it back to the playoffs, reaching the World Series, for the first time since 1985 and vindicated GM Dayton Moore for dealing Wil Myers -- then top-prospect, now Shields’ teammate -- for him before the 2013 season.
At this point of his career, the 33-year-old Shields is a known commodity. He has a career ERA of 3.72, and outside of two outlier seasons (one good, one bad), has been between 3.15 and 4.14 in each year since becoming a full-time major league starter in 2007. He has been even more consistent in the FIP department, where he has sat between 3.42 and 3.59 in the last four seasons.
In fantasy, Shields is not quite a No. 1 starter, unless you load up on hitters early. As far as his fantasy value goes, there's one major red flag from his tenure with the Royals: both his strikeout rate and K/9 declined in each of his two seasons in Kansas City. In his final season with the Rays, he posted a 23.6-percent strikeout rate and 8.82 K/9 rate. Those numbers fell to 20.7 percent and 7.71 with the Royals in 2013, then dipped further to 19.2 percent and 7.14 last year. The culprit appears to be a less effective changeup, from the perspective of getting empty swings. Here are Shields’ whiff rates and horizontal movement by pitch for his entire career, courtesy of Brooks Baseball. Pay particular attention to the decline in the changeup column from 2010 through last season.
Shields has always relied heavily on his changeup, throwing it about a one-quarter of the time over his career. If it’s moving less, and thus inducing fewer whiffs, it’s only natural that his strikeout rate will come down.
In a neutral environment, Shields would have a lack of strikeout upside. However, he’s making the move to the NL from the AL. Better still, he’s now in the NL West and pitching his home games at Petco Park. On average, he’ll make half his starts at one of the friendliest stadiums in the majors for pitchers. In addition, AT&T Park and Dodger Stadium also rate as some of the best parks in which to pitch. Coors Field is at the opposite end of the spectrum, and Chase Field always plays better for hitters, too, but this is a huge gain for Shields. Add that to the natural bump any pitcher gets by trading the DH for the pitcher in opposing lineups, and Shields could actually see an increase in his strikeout totals.
Before he signed with the Padres, Shields had an average draft position of 102.61 in STATS’ National Fantasy Baseball Championship leagues, making him the No. 23 starting pitcher. Even with the move to the NL, that feels a bit high, and his new home is only likely to increase his draft-day price. He’s already rubbing elbows with Tyson Ross, Gerrit Cole and Alex Wood, three pitchers with much higher upside and relatively safe floors. Unless he comes at a discount, I’m letting someone else take the plunge on Shields.