James Shields isn't the only notable free agent still unsigned with less than two weeks remaining before spring training, but he's by far the best. He has ace-quality stuff but he does have drawbacks. He is 33 years old, has thrown a ton of innings in the last four seasons (averaging 240 2/3 per year, including the postseason), will cost his new team its top unprotected draft pick, will demand a significant contract despite his late signing date and has indicated a "strong preference" for the west coast.
Those factors have combined to keep Shields on the market to this late date despite rumors this week suggesting that he would sign by week's end. So where will Shields wind up? That remains a mystery, but we can try to figure out where he would best fit.
Let's first consider what type of pitcher Shields is. A workhorse whose best pitch is a mid-80s changeup, Shields has no overwhelming tendencies. He's not a strikeout pitcher or a ground-ball pitcher, but he's also not an extreme contract or fly-ball pitcher either. He has spent his career in pitchers' parks in Tampa Bay and Kansas City, and despite an increase in velocity in recent years, his strikeout rate has dropped in each of the last two seasons, diving below league-average last year. In other words, he is a pitcher who relies on a big ballpark and quality fielding. Also, because of his age and heavy workloads, he is very much a win-now player, one who could help a borderline contender get over the top in the next couple of seasons but who could decline sharply within even a four-year deal.
So we're looking for slick-fielding contenders in spacious ballparks. Eyeballing the leaders in park-adjusted defensive efficiency from 2014, the teams that satisfy those categories are the Angels, Athletics, Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants, Mariners Pirates and Royals. After their impressive offseason, I'll throw Shields' hometown Padres on that list too. From there, I'm eliminating Kansas City, Oakland and Pittsburgh because we know they're not going to spend the money it would take to land Shields, which could be around $100 million. I'm also going to eliminate San Francisco; after flirting with Shields earlier in the offseason, it opted to pinch pennies and re-sign Jake Peavy instead. Plus, the Giants already have Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong and Yusmeiro Petit competing for the fifth spot in their rotation.
That leaves us with five teams, four of which are indeed on the west coast. Let's look at how Shields would fit on each, starting with those furthest away from his home in San Diego.
St. Louis Cardinals
Distance from San Diego: 1,849 miles
The Cardinals are perennial contenders in what has become the most competitive division in baseball and will only be more so with the ascension of the Cubs, who are rumored to have interest in Shields themselves. St. Louis traded Shelby Miller to Atlanta earlier this offseason to clear room for one of two impressive 23-year-old arms: the righthanded Martinez, who struck out 34 men in 32 1/3 innings in seven starts last year, or the lefty Gonzales, the 19th pick in the 2013 draft who made five major league starts last year.
Neither is a sure thing for the coming season, however. And with Adam Wainwright having undergone minor surgery on his elbow in October and Michael Wacha having missed most of the second half of last season due to a stress fracture in his shoulder, the Cardinals could stand to have one more sure thing in their rotation. That said, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold wrote of Shields on Wednesday, "Within the past few weeks, I have been told by a few people the Cardinals are not a team with interest. Point blank." Goold's theory is that the Cardinals don't want to surrender the bonus pool money associated with their top draft pick.
Distance from San Diego: 1,253 miles
As a team nursing a 13-year playoff drought that fell one win shy of a wild-card spot last year, the Mariners seem like a particularly good match for Shields, even if signing him bumps Elias, a 26-year-old sophomore southpaw, from the rotation. With Erasmo Ramirez and J.A. Happ also on the 40-man roster, the Mariners don't lack rotation depth, which may be needed to compensate for potential innings limits placed on Walker and Paxton. Adding Shields, however, would remove a great deal of uncertainty — and the below-average Happ — from the equation by adding Elias to the supply of replacement starters. It's also worth noting that current No. 2 starter Hisashi Iwakuma, who is eight months older than Shields, is in his walk year.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Distance from San Diego: 122 miles
Back of rotation: Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson
McCarthy started 30-plus games for the first time in his major league career last year, so I'll skip my usual spiel on his chronic shoulder injuries. I cannot be so kind about Anderson, however. Talented as he may be (and he's almost as good a Twitter follow as McCarthy, to boot), Anderson has averaged just 52 innings pitched and eight starts per season over the last four years due to a tragicomic litany of injuries, and is coming off August back surgery as well. Even if McCarthy is able to remain healthy and effective, neither of which is a given, Anderson seems sure to break at some point, likely early, in the season. That would leave the Dodgers to pick through the likes of Juan Nicasio, Joe Wieland, Michael Bolsinger and prospect Zach Lee, who had a rough Triple A debut last year. The Dodgers are also facing the possibility of Zack Greinke opting out of his contract at the end of the coming year.
The Dodgers are the biggest spenders in all of baseball, they could get a hometown discount being so close to San Diego and their president of baseball operations is Andrew Friedman, who was the Rays' general manager throughout Shields' seven years in Tampa Bay. That makes it difficult to believe they won't at least make an offer to Shields, even though Peter Gammons reports they have other priorities.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Distance from San Diego: 92 miles
The Angels' situation is similar to that of the Dodgers. They are defending division champions but have a recent history of playoff runs that have ended short of a pennant (they've fallen short six times since their lone World Series appearance in 2002). They are close enough to San Diego for Shields to live at home during the season, which could allow them to land him without making the top bid. They also have incumbent starters nearing the end of their contracts in Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, both of whom will be in their walk years in 2016. Of those two, Wilson is a year older than Shields, and Weaver is just 10 months younger.
As for the projected back of their rotation, the Angels seemed more than willing to push Santiago to the bullpen last year, and Heaney has made just 20 starts above Double A, making a return to Triple A to start the year entirely appropriate. Among the established members of the rotation, Garrett Richards is not guaranteed to be ready by Opening Day following left knee surgery; Weaver has had a drop in velocity and a steady rise in his fielding independent pitching figures; Wilson endured a poor second half; and Matt Shoemaker is a 28-year-old sophomore who made just 20 starts last year. Given all that, the Angels are one of the teams for whom Shields would be an instant ace. Still, the last word heard out of Anaheim was that general manager Jerry DiPoto is not interested.
San Diego Padres
Distance from San Diego: 0 miles
This is where the current rumors are all pointing, and it makes sense, both because Shields has said being close to San Diego is important and because the Padres were extremely aggressive in improving their club this offseason -- landing, most notably, outfielder Matt Kemp in a trade with the Dodgers -- and could use a front-end pitcher to complete the job. Signing Shields would prompt widespread re-evaluation of whether or not the Padres are contenders, though it's worth noting that in adding offense, they significantly undermined their defense in the outfield and behind the plate.
As for how he'd fit, even the top of San Diego's rotation isn't all that impressive. Andrew Cashner is talented, but he's now 28, has never made more than 26 starts in a major league season and has struck out just 6.7 men per nine innings over the last two seasons. Late-blooming Tyson Ross, who turns 28 in April, may be the ace of this staff right now, and Ian Kennedy, now 30, is entering his walk year.
There's clearly a place for Shields here. The only question is whether or not the Padres can afford him (the San Diego Union-Tribune's Dennis Lin thinks they can) and if they're being too optimistic about their ability to turn their franchise around in a single offseason.
Best fit: Angels
Who would you rather have in 2017: Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson or James Shields? I'd take Shields out of that bunch, and the Angels should, too. That's particularly true given that they may need him to fight off the Mariners this season (also not guaranteed to be ready by Opening Day for Los Angeles: Josh Hamilton, who had surgery on his right shoulder earlier this week). When Richards is ready, Santiago can move the bullpen, where he will be one of just two lefties, and Heaney can head to Triple A as injury insurance with an eye on joining the rotation full-time in 2016 after the weakest link from this year's crop has been removed. Shields, meanwhile, can reprise the default ace role he assumed in Kansas City, giving the Angels the stability and dependability atop their rotation they currently lack heading into the season.