White Sox upgrade with Shields, but starter not what team needs most
Two teams in desperate straits got an early jump on the trading season on Saturday, with the imploding Padres sending would-be ace James Shields and tens of millions of dollars to the free-falling White Sox in exchange for teenage third baseman Fernando Tatis Jr. and righthanded starter Erik Johnson. For the Padres, the move continues their rebuilding purge following general manager A.J. Preller’s disastrous pre-2015 binge. For the White Sox, the move follows a month-long slide that has seen Chicago fall from a six-game lead in the American League Central all the way down to third place entering Saturday’s game against the Tigers.
That 6–17 skid—which includes Saturday’s 7–4 loss to Detroit—ties the White Sox with the lowly Reds for the worst record in the major leagues since May 10. Even the Padres have been better, going 9–15 over that stretch. But despite the concurrent struggles of veteran Mat Latos, whom Shields is most likely to replace in the rotation, starting pitching has been the least of the Sox' problems over that stretch. Far more painful has been a team-wide offensive slump—no AL team has scored fewer than Chicago's 3.8 runs per game over that stretch—and some shaky relief pitching, highlighted by last weekend’s series in which the Royals staged three late-inning comebacks to sweep their way past the White Sox and into first place.
That’s not to say that the White Sox can endure Latos’s pitching much longer. Since a fluky start to the season in which he went 4–0 with a 0.74 ERA thanks in large part to a .167 opponents’ batting average on balls in play, the veteran righthander has posted a 6.54 ERA over his last six starts. That’s been more than a change in fortune. Latos’s peripherals over those six starts have been awful, including 14 walks against just 18 strikeouts and eight home runs allowed in 31 2/3 innings. On the season, Latos has a 5.28 FIP and 5.34 deserved run average, suggesting that his more recent results are indeed closer to his true level.
Shields has been better, but he is no longer the front-of-the-rotation stud he was with the Rays and Royals. Over the last two seasons, he has compiled a 93 ERA+ with a 4.44 FIP, with spikes in his walk and home run rates driving that decline in performance. Before signing with San Diego after the 2014 season, Shields walked 5.7% of the batters he faced and allowed home runs to 2.9% of them. As a Padre, he has walked 9.4% of opposing batters and allowed home runs to 3.7% of them. Worse for Shields, who has spent his entire career on teams with pitching-friendly home ballparks, he is now moving into homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field.
Now 34, Shields’s value primarily rests in his durability. Since reaching the majors a little more than 10 years ago, Shields has only once been sidelined by injury—a tight hamstring in September of his rookie season. In every year from 2006 to '16, he has made at least 31 starts (and at least 33 in the last eight) and pitched more than 200 innings. So far this season, he has made every one of his scheduled starts while averaging more than six innings per start, putting him on pace for yet another 200-inning season.
That durability is important for the White Sox, because it is increasingly becoming clear that one of the their biggest liabilities when it comes to the pitching staff is the slow hook of manager Robin Ventura. Last year, Chicago was the only team in baseball whose starters averaged more than 100 pitches per start, and Ventura used by far the fewest relievers of any manager in baseball, making just 414 pitching changes—a tendency that appears to have contributed to his inability to snuff out opponents’ comebacks. This year, the Sox are third in baseball in average starter’s pitch count and are tied for the second most blown quality starts in baseball.
Saturday’s game against Detroit reinforced both points. In the sixth inning, White Sox starter Chris Sale allowed three base runners and coughed up the lead on a two-run J.D. Martinez home run, finishing that frame with 100 pitches on the day. Ventura, however, not only brought Sale out again to start the seventh, but he also left him in after a leadoff double to Jose Iglesias, not removing his ace until after he had allowed Iglesias to score on his 111th pitch of the night. Ventura then let Matt Albers, who got the final two outs of the seventh, give up three more runs in the eighth before making another pitching change, by which point the game was all but lost. Albers has now allowed 12 runs, 11 earned, in his last 9 1/3 innings, not counting the eight inherited runners he has allowed to score over that span.
Shields rose to stardom in part because of his ability to devour innings. He completed a whopping 11 games in 2011 (still the most in the majors this century), averaged 233 regular-season innings from 2011 to '14 and added 25 postseason frames in the last of those seasons as he helped the Royals reach their first World Series in 29 years. Shields’s seemingly rubber arm survived those heavy workloads, but his effectiveness has not, as his velocity has declined in each of the last two seasons from a career-best 93.6 mph average fastball in 2014 to just 91.4 mph this year. Add in his age and his rising walk and home run rates, and there is good reason that the Padres jumped at the opportunity to dump his contract on another organization.
The two players heading to San Diego are not elite talents. Johnson was once the top prospect in a weak White Sox farm system, but given the opportunity to secure a spot on the big-league rotation in 2014, he struggled mightily. After that season, he enlisted a coach from outside of the organization to help rebuild his mechanics, turning in a strong season at Triple A that earned him another major league look last September. This year, however, Johnson’s results have been underwhelming: He's been hit hard in two spot starts and posted weak peripherals in Triple A. Tatis Jr., the son of former outfielder and third baseman Fernando Tatis, is a 17-year-old third baseman with a strong arm and reported power potential, but he was not among the White Sox’s top prospects prior to this season. At best, they are a reclamation project and a lottery ticket, at least for now secondary to the savings on the list of the benefits the Padres have incurred from this trade.
The exact financial terms of this trade have yet to be announced, but of the roughly $58 million remaining on Shields’s contract through the 2018 season, the Padres are reported to be paying approximately $31 million, thus dumping $27 million worth of salary on the White Sox. Those terms are further complicated by the fact that Shields has the option to opt out of his contract after the current season.
Based on his poor showing for San Diego, it seems likely that Shields will become the first in a new wave of players to forgo their opt-out (prior to this year, Vernon Wells was the only player with a multi-year opt-out who didn't use it). This trade would seem to increase the chances that the southern California native might actually invoke the clause for personal reasons, but it still seems absurd for a pitcher with Shields’s declining performance to reject what amounts to a two-year, $44 million contract heading into his age-35 season, regardless of where his team plays its home games. Nonetheless, it is unclear what the financial arrangements would be if Shields does opt out. Is any of that reported $31 million earmarked to contribute to the $14 million Shields is still owed this season? Or will both teams simply breathe a sigh of relief and share a hearty chuckle and a toast if Shields does decide to test the market this winter?
Barring that unlikely scenario, this trade is only mildly favorable for both teams. For the Padres, the addition of even marginal young players and the $27 million in salary relief are clearly positive developments, and Shields won’t be missed on a last-place team in need of a full rebuild, but San Diego still had to eat a ton of salary. Also on the menu is an additional serving of crow for Preller, who not only failed to translate “winning the winter” into winning baseball games in 2015 but also subsequently failed to trade Justin Upton at last year's trade deadline before his subsequent free agency. Preller has since dealt Craig Kimbrel (admittedly for an excellent return) and Shields, but he remains saddled with one of baseball’s worst contracts via the $72 million Matt Kemp is still owed from this season through 2019.
For the White Sox, Shields should be an upgrade over Latos in the rotation, but that’s a very low bar for success. Perhaps more significantly, they are paying a much higher price than that upgrade would appear to be worth and still not addressing the larger problems that have developed in recent weeks. Adding James Shields could prevent Chicago from falling any further behind Kansas City and Cleveland in the AL Central, but it won’t get the White Sox back on top of the division. For that, they need the offense and bullpen to perk up, and perhaps for Don Cooper to wave some smelling salts under Ventura’s nose the next time one of his pitchers—Shields included—gets in a late-inning jam.