The Rangers are hamstrung by limited financial resources this winter, an issue exacerbated by the remaining holes they still need to fill before spring training gets underway. More so than any team in baseball, Texas are relying on its injured, ineffective 2014 parts to produce next season. No matter what the club adds between now and then will mean a damn thing unless Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus and Derek Holland are healthy and performing up to reasonable expectations.
Operating beneath that assumption, Jon Daniels has only two ways (excluding doing nothing at all) to play the rest of this winter: he can either gamble on health and a return to normalcy from the players above, spend the residual $10-12 million left in the budget on inexpensive place-holders -- notably at catcher, right field, and another starter -- or add one significant piece and hope those extra wins carry the team over the top.
Towards the end of the winter meetings, one name fitting the latter criteria was James Shields, whom the Rangers have met with according to Chris Cotillo.
Shields, 33 in five days, carries with him more perceived value than anything else, as his "Big Game" moniker during the postseason has been worth a 5.46 ERA over 59.1 innings. By virtue of a lifetime 3.72 ERA (3.61 xFIP) and the fact that he's averaged 223 innings pitched per season since 2007, there isn't a doubt James Shields is a fine pitcher. The only shade I throw is in saying he has never been a #1 starting pitcher, and more than likely will not produce to the standard of a true #2 over the life of his next contract.
In October when FanGraphs did a crowdsourcing project, the fans had Shields's next contract pegged at an AAV of $18.3 million over an average of 4.7 years. Let's call it $90 million over five years. Carson Cistulli, who conducts these crowd sources, writes that last year the fans "typically missed by 37% on overall contract value and is most likely to underestimate the overall contract figures of the most high-profile free agents."
Shields obviously falls into the category of "high-profile free agent," and there's really no reason to assume he won't get more than 5/90. After all, Jon Lester -- a low #1/high #2 starting pitcher -- set the market for pitching this winter at six years and $155 million, an average annual value approaching $26 million. If we concede the knowledgeable FanGraphs audience low-balled Shields the same way they low-balled Lester -- whom they had projected at six years and $128.1 million back in October -- there's a decent probability Shields commands closer to $20 million AAV on the open market, whether it's for five years or six.
James Shields couldn't have hit the market at a better time. He was the headline pitcher on a team that just won the American League pennant, is clearly the third-best pitcher of an expensive troika of starters this offseason -- along with Lester and Max Scherzer -- and did nothing over the past two years, generating +8.2 fWAR, to hinder his value. He is more innings-eater than he is ace, but pitching is and always will be scarce, and he is going to get paid a pretty penny this offseason. One way or another.
The question here is, does this make sense for the Texas Rangers?
Shields has an accomplished resumé, but it's undeniable he produced his career numbers in two of the better pitchers parks -- Tampa Bay and Kansas City -- in MLB. The Ballpark in Arlington is no longer a hitter's park... now it's more neutral, but it's akin to a pitcher going from a neutral park to a hitter's park. There's also the matter of his age. If he's given a five year contract, it will cover his age-33- through age-37 seasons. Since 2006 he's been an excessive bargain, producing +31.6 fWAR -- 6th-most in the AL -- while earning just a hair over $39 million.
The deal he signs this winter is going to be worth roughly two and a half times more than that figure, and it will span his decline years. Would you pay $100 million for a #3 starter over the next five or six seasons? And more importantly, should the Rangers?
There isn't a doubt James Shields would immediately improve Texas by three to four wins in 2015. It's a decent bet he produces as much in 2016 as well, which is important since it may be Yu Darvish's final season as a Ranger. We can't forget about the championship window.
To sign Shields would take a bit of creativity from the front office, as the club has little to spend right now. Signing him to a five-year, $100 million contract, let's say, would mean the club would get him at a discount in 2015, but would be on the hook to pay him about $23 million over the final four years of the deal. It's not impossible, but it would take some serious faith from Jon Daniels.
That, in essence, is what the prospect of James Shields in Texas comes down to. If they value creating a dynamic rotation over the next two years -- one that will feature Darvish, Holland, Martin Perez and Shields, potentially -- they can convince ownership to fork over the cash in the short- and longterm. If they would rather table that money, spend it on cheap parts to fill out the roster this offseason or during the trade deadline, then it's reasonable to assume they have bigger aspirations for the future.
Whatever contract Shields signs this offseason will reflect a #2 starter, which he once was but won't be over the next half-decade. If the Rangers decide they want to be that team, they are doing it to win a championship over the next couple years; it's the same reason they traded for Fielder and signed Choo last offseason.
I'm not counting on James Shields being a Ranger in 2015, but it's a sensible move given the current state of the roster.