How James Shields fell into the Padres’ laps through strategic bumbling

Around mid-January, the music stopped and James Shields was still standing. Free agency is a game of musical chairs, really, a crawl in which people try to outmaneuver one another for their piece of a finite pie. And Shields’ first foray into free agency is a case study on what happens when a player misreads the tactics of others and the effect they’ll have on him.

Considering the circumstances in which Shields found himself, the four-year, $75 million deal he fetched from the San Diego Padres is actually a minor miracle. Toward the end, Shields’ market was Black Monday. It got bad enough that teams jumped in with three-year offers because the value for a pitcher like Shields was too good to pass up. The surest sign of a bungled opportunity is when the player loses hand and teams start dictating terms.

The Padres will be looking to James Shields to anchor their rotation. (USAT)
The Padres will be looking to James Shields to anchor their rotation. (USAT)

The fallout – San Diego making another power move in an offseason full of them, the floor for a frontline starter set heading into next offseason’s incredible free-agent class, Shields bringing his durable arm and great presence to the unfamiliar terrain of the National League – all ties back to the days after the World Series. Shields found himself mentioned with the other two big-name free agent starters, Max Scherzer and Jon Lester. Consequently, his agent, Page Odle, started asking for terms in similar neighborhoods.

As the Red Sox proffered a six-year, $120 million opening offer to Lester, Odle sought terms in that range, according to multiple clubs involved early in the negotiations. One executive said Odle started discussions with a six-year deal in mind. Another confirmed what the Kansas City Star wrote Monday: He simultaneously was shooting for a five-year, $125 million pact with others.

Shields’ problems began with the years. So much went in his favor. Only Mark Buehrle has more consecutive 200-inning seasons than Shields’ eight. His walk rate last year dipped below two per nine innings. Truth is, he shouldn’t be nicknamed Big Game James. He should be Mr. Reliable, and with elbows blowing up right and left, well-above-average steadiness is the sort of thing that in the right circumstances gets more than $20 million a year.

Focusing on a deal that would end with Shields on the cusp of his 38th or 39th birthday, on the other hand, poisoned the well. Scherzer and Lester signed deals that end at 37 years old, which is about as long as a team will sign a pitcher today. Exceptions exist, of course, but only when the dollars come down – and Odle wasn’t using the average annual value on the deal as a chip to leverage the years.

When Lester signed for $155 million over six years with the Chicago Cubs, it only emboldened Odle. Which, at the time, seemed reasonable enough. Problem is, the top of the market works exponentially. If Player A is, say, 80 percent as good as Player B, he doesn’t necessarily get 80 percent as good of a contract. Lester had an incredible walk year, a great playoff track record and a birth year of 1984. Shields had a good walk year, a miserable playoff track record and a birth year of 1981.

The little things matter in free agency, and understanding the market writ large is vital. The number of teams looking to pay top money for a top starter shriveled this year in large part because next year will deliver perhaps the single greatest free-agent class since Curt Flood fought the good fight. The number of legitimate No. 1 starters alone is staggering: David Price, Jordan Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto and Zack Greinke all are $150 million players if they hit the market. Jeff Samardzija may crack $100 million. Doug Fister, Hisashi Iwakuma, Rick Porcello, Mat Latos and Yovani Gallardo comprise one hell of a second tier. And when Mike Leake, Ian Kennedy, Kyle Lohse, John Lackey, Scott Kazmir and Wei-Yin Chen can’t crack the top 10, it speaks to the number of options in June and July trades, not to mention next offseason.

After Lester signed, Shields could have pounced and ramped up negotiations. GMs expected that parry. They held firm, figuring Odle would lessen his demands. That never happened. Shields ended up in San Diego of his own volition, because had he budged earlier, executives believe he would have received plenty more.

There’s a reason no pitcher had signed for more than $50 million in February: No pitcher was foolish enough to wait until February to sign. Most teams, at this juncture, have locked-in budgets that need special dispensations to move. San Diego happens to be in the midst of a complete overhaul, so general manager A.J. Preller walked into negotiations with monetary flexibility – and the knowledge that were he to whiff on Shields, he could trade for Cole Hamels.

Shields had a rough postseason in 2014. (USAT)
Shields had a rough postseason in 2014. (USAT)

A simple move – lowering the expectations on the deal to four years – would have sparked the market. The San Francisco Giants originally were interested at around $80 million over four years. At least a dozen teams would listen at four years, and of those, surely one would pledge $21 million a year times four to separate itself. Which would prompt a jump to $22 million a year, maybe $23 million, and when you add in a club option as a sweetener, that’s a contract that potentially jumps comfortably into the nine-figure range.

When that didn’t happen, the Padres sprung to action and got a nice bargain. It wasn’t a blue-light special, by any means, though it puts them in an even stronger position to challenge the Dodgers and Giants or, at very least, grab one of the two wild-card positions. The Rockies and Diamondbacks look like two of the worst teams in baseball, and 38 combined games against them is a gift the Padres happily accept.

Once again, Shields gets to prove wrong a cadre of doubters. Last time, it was the group that ridiculed the Royals for giving up Wil Myers in a trade to get Shields. That one worked out rather well for Shields. This time, it’s showing 29 GMs that he didn’t warrant bargain status, that he can be the one who defies age.

On that voyage, he’ll bring with him perhaps the best major league stadium to pitch in and a suspect defense, a fastball that’s faster than ever and a changeup that last year looked nothing like the premium out pitch of seasons past, a knowledge of clubhouse dynamics unmatched, and a cutter on which he relied too much at times. At $125 million, the negatives outweigh the positives. At $75 million, with a club option for a fifth year at $16 million, the positives look mighty good.

All of it sets up not just a fascinating season with the new-look Padres, featuring Shields alongside Myers, coincidentally, plus Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Derek Norris and more – including, perhaps, Cuban star prospect Yoan Moncada, who sources told Yahoo Sports worked out for the Padres on Monday with the expectation they’ll be strong bidders. It also flashes us forward to November, when free agency kicks off and the pitchers survey the market. There will be alpha dogs and those who think they’re alpha dogs, and James Shields showed the danger in confusing the latter with the former.

Even if everything ended well enough, with Shields hitting the equivalent of a grand slam in a game you’re down 10, there was a lesson learned: When the music stops playing, make sure you have a seat.

James Shields Career Wins and ERA | FindTheBest