No free agent pitcher has ever signed a contract greater than $50 million dollars after January 31st. Today is February 1st. I have to imagine that trend is going to break for James Shields…but I’m not sure.
Shields was the consensus 3rd option in a pretty good free agent class for pitching. Lester quickly went off the board to Chicago, and Scherzer took his time before signing with the Nationals. That has pretty much cleared the top of the market out, with plenty of good teams still needing good pitching. You would expect Shields to be in the driver’s seat, then, but there hasn’t really been much news at all about where he might sign, or when, or for how much. This is not only uncommon, it’s unheard of. A pitcher of Big Game James’ caliber has never waited until February to sign.
I can think of three reasons why this might occur. The first is that there are plenty of negotiations going on right now, and they are just occurring in secret. This is the most logical option, especially considering that Max Scherzer didn’t sign all that long ago. Shields could have decided to wait until Scherzer signed, and then collected the highest fee from the loser of that sweepstakes. A lot of the same teams that you’d figure were in on Scherzer would be in on Shields; the Yankees, Red Sox, and Tigers could all use a high-caliber pitcher or three. The second option is that Shields has an offer in hand, and is just waiting on a team he’d rather sign to match it. I really doubt this, as it’s dirty pool for those agents. However, there were rumblings that Shields had a $100 million offer from some team, so you can’t discount entirely. Last, Shields is injured. It’s possible, to be sure. He’s a pitcher, so there’s a 1 in 6 chance he’s injured at any given time anyway. Additionally, he was awful in the postseason (25 IP, 17 R), which while typical for Big Game James, could still be a negative indicator. Let’s also not forget that Shields is 33, and has been in the Top 14 in Pitcher Abuse Points in each of those seasons. There’s every reason to believe that age-36 James Shields will be like age-38 of a normal pitcher, which is to say, not good.
This is where I’m going to get a little crazy. I think Shields is a perfect candidate for the much-talked-about-but-never-realized short-term, high-dollar contract. It’s possible that the market on Shields for a 5-year contract just isn’t there. The 6-year market is certainly gone (or someone would have signed him). If Shields wants 5/$100, would he sign for 3/$72? If he performs well, he’d be 36 in free agency. Sounds like a death sentence until you realize that in 2013 the Diamondbacks gave Bronson Arroyo (37) 2/$23.5, and the Mets gave Colon (40) 2/$20. Those deals are way more common than you think. It’s a bet on himself without actually taking on much downside. Could Shields hold out for another 18 to 20 million over that short-term deal? Sure, it’s possible, though he could earn more this way and it’s not guaranteed he could even get a $100MM contract at this point.
To tie this to the Cubs, I would like to see them get creative and float a contract like this out there. The Cubs are at $117.4 million this year, and they probably aren’t going to have another huge contract in them. However, replacing Travis Wood at the #5 with James Shields probably adds 3 wins to this team’s expected WAR. BP has us at 82, with the WCs at 84 and 83. The marginal value of those 3 wins right now are huge, easily more than $8 million per win in FA dollars. If the Cubs can buy those wins without mortgaging 2018, they should look long and hard at it.