James Shields finally has a home. The last elite free agent remaining this offseason has come to terms with the Padres on a four-year contract with a club option for 2019, according to SB Nation's Chris Cotillo; according to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, the deal is worth $75 million.
That contract is significantly less than Shields was expected to sign for this winter, and less than half of the total value of the contracts landed by the winter's other two premier starting pitchers: Jon Lester (who signed with the Cubs for six years and $155 million) and Max Scherzer (who signed a creatively structured seven-year, $210 million deal with the Nationals). Earlier this week, Shields refuted rumors that he had ever declined a five-year, $110 million offer this offseason, despite an early January rumor that he had such an offer in hand. Nonetheless, the Padres appear to have received a hometown discount from the pitcher — he was born and raised just north of Los Angeles, in Newhall and Santa Clarita, respectively, he makes his home in San Diego and he had expressed a "strong preference" for signing with a West Coast team.
For the Padres, landing Shields — who averaged 233 innings and a 124 ERA+ over the last four years — is the final piece of a spectacular offseason that saw them upgrade their lineup via trades for outfielders Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers and catcher Derek Norris. With Shields in place, the Padres, whose pitchers already have the advantage of one of the most extreme pitchers' parks in baseball, have a strong top four in their rotation. Shields slots in as the veteran ace, late-bloomer Tyson Ross (an All-Star in 2014 at the age of 27) lands the 1A position, hard-throwing Andrew Cashner takes the No. 3 spot and 30-year-old Ian Kennedy, who has averaged 201 innings per season with a league-average ERA+ over the last five years, is the way down in the fourth slot.
With those four in place, the Padres have almost too many options for the fifth spot, including offseason additions Brandon Morrow and Brandon Maurer, the latter of whom now seems sure to wind up in the bullpen or Triple A; Cuban sophomore Odrisamer Despaigne and 24-year-old lefty Robbie Erlin (both of whom finished 2014 in the Padres' rotation); and recovering Tommy John recipients Josh Johnson, Casey Kelly and Cory Luebke, all of whom had the surgery last April or earlier. That doesn't even include top pitching prospect Matt Wisler, who is expected to make his major league debut this year, or Aaron Northcraft, who was acquired from the Braves in the Upton deal. If healthy, Morrow, who has spent 320 days on the disabled list over the last three years and signed an incentive-laden one-year deal in December, will get the first crack at the fifth spot, but the Padres clearly have plenty of options should he falter.
Shields, who is 33 and would be 37 in his option year, is not a dominant ace on the level of Scherzer and Lester. He has made just one All-Star team and appeared in the top 10 in the Cy Young voting just once, both in 2011. However, his heavy workloads and well-above-average run prevention have helped his teams reach the postseason in four of the last seven seasons, with two of those playoff berths resulting in World Series appearances, with the Rays in 2008 and the Royals last year. The Padres, trying to effect a radical rebuild in a single offseason under first-time general manager A.J. Preller, are hoping he will have a similar impact in San Diego.
Shields has thrown more innings over the last eight years than any other pitcher in the major leagues (recording one more out than Felix Hernandez), and over the last four years, he has pitched 19 more innings than any other pitcher with an ERA+ very close to the two runners-up (124 compared to Justin Verlander's 129 and Hernandez's 127 over the same span). As impressive and valuable as all that is, however, those workloads are also the source of concern, particularly for a pitcher entering his mid-30s, as we have seen in recent years with the declines of fellow workhorses Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia and Verlander.
Halladay's arm gave out at age 35 after he had thrown 1,452 2/3 innings between the regular and postseasons over a six-year span (242 per year). Sabathia fell off dramatically at age 32 after throwing 1,500 1/3 innings over a six-year span (250 per year) and Verlander saw a sharp decline in his effectiveness at age 31 last season after throwing 1,248 2/3 innings over the previous five years (249 2/3 per year). Shields hasn't been worked quite as hard for quite as long as those three, however, throwing just 962 2/3 innings over the last four seasons, playoffs included (240 2/3 per year). Still, it wouldn't be surprising to see even his relatively short four-year deal include a season or two well below his established level.
That goes hand-in-hand with the Padres' apparent need for speed this offseason. Upton is entering his walk year. Kemp, though just 30 and signed through 2019, was ravaged by injuries in the years following his near-MVP campaign in 2011 and can't be expected to age well. San Diego is clearly expecting a quick leap into contention, and the Shields signing is very much a win-now move. That attitude is enabled by the second wild card, which has dropped the level of entry to the postseason to roughly 88 wins (enough to get the Athletics, Pirates and eventual world champion Giants into the dance last October).
The Padres won 77 games last year, their highest total since 2010, but their third-order record suggests they were more of a 73-win team in actuality. Of course, that was when they had by far the worst offense in baseball. Kemp, Upton and Myers should rid them of that distinction, but the trade-off is a dramatic drop in the quality of their outfield defense. All three are sub-par in the field, and one of them, most likely Myers, will be asked to play center, at least in the early going. One potential solution to that is moving one of those three big bats to first base, where incumbent Yonder Alonso, who turns 28 in April, has been a bust, and playing a glove-first option such as Will Venable or Cameron Maybin in center. Ironically, Myers, who was originally a catcher and saw some time at third base in Triple A, would be the most likely candidate to move to first.
The quality of the Padres' defense will be important to Shields, who has spent his career pitching in front of excellent fielders with the Rays and Royals and whose strikeout rate dipped below league average last year (7.1 K/9 and 19.2 percent against American League averages of 7.7 and 20.2). It will also be interesting to see how Shields gets on with the defensively-challenged Norris behind the plate. Shields may be moving into an even more favorable home ballpark than Tropicana Field or Kauffman Stadium, but he's losing two other key advantages he has enjoyed during his recent run of success: a strong defensive catcher (most recently Salvador Perez in Kansas City) and an excellent all-around defense behind him.
With Shields off the board, the top free agents remaining are closers Francisco Rodriguez and Rafael Soriano. After those two, there may not be another player on the market likely to land a major league contract, particularly with ex-Braves pitcher Brandon Beachy opting to hold off signing for the moment, a decision that suggests he didn't impress when he threw for teams last month, and former All-Star shortstop Everth Cabrera facing trial stemming from a September arrest. With pitchers and catchers due to report next week, the Shields signing thus appears to mark the unofficial end of the offseason.