Big game James? Not in Toronto


It’s easy as a fan to say give free agent James Shields the money he’s asking for to become a Blue Jay in 2015. It’s easy to say he’s a great pitcher, an ace the Jays have desperately craved since the departure of Roy Halladay years ago. It’s easy for Jays fans to look at Shields’s resume, littered with an average of 30 starts a season, a career ERA of 3.72 and demand him in the rotation this season.

What’s hard is standing pat, being comfortable in one of the youngest and quite possibly the most talented rotations in the AL East. 

He’s a great pitcher; depending how you look at it, he might even be an ace. But let’s face it, the better part of his career is over. A new contract isn’t some award; a new contract is a representation of what he should be paid based on what he is likely to do tomorow, not yesterday. At the age of 33, unless he’s willing to take a three-year deal, an impossibility by any measure, Shields will cost the Jays a lot more long-term than any self-respecting Blue Jay fan can actually imagine.

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This article is solely based on the premise that Shields will cost something in the neighbourhood of $20M per season for at least four to five seasons. While he may be worth $18M in 2015 and maybe even 2016, it’s likely, given how the whole “aging” thing works, no one in their right mind will enjoy paying him that at the age of 36 plus.

Why? Because we are already experiencing the decline of the so-called ace.

Since joining the Royals in 2013, Shields has certainly benefitted from the pitcher-friendly Kaufman Stadium. In his two seasons as a Royal, he posted an average of 9.15 HR/FB. In his seven seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, in a stadium quite similar to Toronto’s Rogers Centre, he averaged 12.01 HR/FB. Although those seasons were two years ago, you can’t ignore the jump in home-runs if Shields were to come to the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre next season.

The other anomaly in Shields’s 2014 season is his curveball velocity. In 2014, he threw the pitch harder than ever before. As Matthew Kory notes in his article, it’s unlikely this is due to some change in the gripping of the pitch and thus it isn’t likely to repeat itself throughout his next contract.

The other pitch, which may be worrisome in the future is the pitch he’s known for, his changeup. Since 2010, Shields’ changeup has continued to generate less and less whiffs (swing and misses) according to Brooks Baseball. This means he will have to continue with the speedy curveball and low walk-rate for him to have any chance at remaining successful into his mid-30s.

Oct 21, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher

James Shields

(33) is relieved by manager

Ned Yost

(middle rear) in the fourth inning against the San Francisco Giants during game one of the 2014 World Series at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Outside of Shields’ control, there remains at least two reasons why the Jays shouldn’t go all in on the inappropriately named ace. First off, the division isn’t exactly suited for a pitcher who’s on the back-end of his career and has at least somewhat benefited from playing the last two seasons in the spacious Kaufman Stadium. The Red Sox offence may be as dangerous as ever; is it really time to pay $20M for a commodity the Jays may have in the system already?

The other issue is that there are better options a year from now if, at that time, you still think you need a starting pitcher. Assuming they don’t all sign extensions with their current teams, next year’s free agent crop will include David Price, Jordan Zimmerman, Zack Greinke, Doug Fister, Mat Latos and Jeff Samardzija. Is it really worth purchasing an okay product now instead of waiting another year for arguably better and younger talent? This writer doesn’t think so.

Lastly, Shields isn’t an ace. His career ERA of 3.72 is less than 0.10 better than Mark Buehrle‘s 3.81 ERA. I don’t hear anyone crying wolf on the fact he isn’t designated as the team’s ace, so why is Jays nation hearing it now concerning Shields?

Given his recent success, it would be hard to imagine James Shields not signing a contract before opening day this spring.

Unless he’s coming in at a clearance sale, let’s hope it’s not in Toronto.