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James Shields is not a safe bet

As time goes on and James Shields remains unsigned, just like with Jon Lester and Max Scherzer, speculation seems to come back to the Cardinals. Even if Shields' price does come down, aging starting pitchers are not a safe bet for production.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Early February has arrived and James Shields remains unsigned. After rumors surrounding Jon Lester and Max Scherzer and the Cardinals were kept alive up until they received contracts the Cardinals likely never had plans to approach, the same is happening with Shields. I did not think the Cardinals should enter the fray with Lester and Scherzer and the same holds true for James Shields. Lester and Scherzer are both younger and more accomplished than James Shields. Shields is likely to be cheaper, but that does not mean he will be a bargain, and the price will likely be more than the Cardinals are willing to pay.

Cardinals fans might recall the Cardinals signing Kyle Lohse in 2008 after he failed to receive offers he was looking for in free agency. This situation is much different for several reasons. First, Lohse waited much longer. He did not sign until March 13, 2008. Second, Lohse was much younger than Shields.  Lohse was just 29 at the time, while Shields is 33. Shields is not going to settle for a pillow contract to seek free agency a year later, although the Cardinals have apparently shown interest

The Cardinals went out and brought in reliever/swingman/sometimes starter Carlos Villanueva. Derrick Goold was hopeful that this signing would put an end to the Shields situation.

Goold elaborated in his piece on the Villanueva signing.

James Shields remains available, but the Cardinals have not expressed interest in the starter to this point. At this point, the team intends to give Carlos Martinez every opportunity to win the open spot in the rotation and adding a veteran starter like Shields would block that plan.

The Cardinals should stick with their plan. James Shields is a veteran. He has pitched a lot of innings at a solid level. Those traits do not make James Shields safe. He might be less likely to get injured than someone with an injury history, but his past performance is no guarantee that the performance will continue for the next few years. The problem is that he is on the wrong side of the aging curve, and he has limited upside for the contract he will receive. The below chart does not show an aging curve, but is representational of the age of most good pitchers in baseball. Over the last ten years, 405 pitchers have qualified for the ERA title and had seasons of at least 3 fWAR (Using Fangraphs Leaderboards). The graph below separates all of those good seasons by a pitcher by age.

pitcher aging

There are roughly as many "good" seasons by pitchers at just the age of 26 (53) as there are at 33 and above (55). James Shields just turned 33. James Shields has already proven himself to be a good pitcher which is what gives him an advantage over most 33-year-olds and allows him to demand so much in free agency. Unfortunately, his best days are likely behind him.

From 1981-2010, there have been eight pitchers who, for their Age-30 through Age-32 seasons, have put together an fWAR between 11 and 13 (Shields' is 12.1), at least 600 innings (Shields is at 683 1/3) and a career fWAR above 20 (Shields' is 31.6).

Jimmy Key 662.2 3.19 3.54 12.9
David Cone 655 3.31 3.95 12.7
Bruce Hurst 685 3.14 3.26 12.7
Chuck Finley 637.2 3.82 3.92 12.7
Frank Viola 719 3.34 3.45 12.2
Mike Boddicker 675.2 3.57 3.58 11.9
John Burkett 600.1 4.36 3.85 11.5
Jack Morris 790 3.33 3.95 11.5
James Shields 683.1 3.29 3.51 12.1

Those pitchers had solid seasons at Age-33. Note: Average ERA is weighted by innings pitched.

Chuck Finley 238 4.16 4.9
John Burkett 195 5.68 4.5
Jimmy Key 168 3.27 3.9
Jack Morris 235 3.94 3.7
Bruce Hurst 221.2 3.29 3.7
Frank Viola 183.2 3.14 3
Mike Boddicker 180.2 4.08 2.2
David Cone 72 2.88 2.2
AVG 187 3.89 3.5

The success did not continue for the entire group, however. Here is the average fWAR cumulatively for the group as well as innings pitched.

Age 33-36 fWAR

As a whole, the group ends up with around 10 wins. Assuming $7 million a win, a four year, $70 million dollar contract would seem entirely reasonable for Shields. The opportunity cost is great considering once these players get past 33, the average does not get up above 3 wins. This is a problem given the money and the rotations spot that Shields will demand. Average is fine, acceptable even, but with just five spots in a rotation, to commit one to a $20 million per year player when he might be likely be average in one year's time would be a mistake.

Here is the chart with the players' cumulative numbers from above.

Chuck Finley 838.2 4.03 4.07 16.8
David Cone 668 3.23 3.64 15.4
John Burkett 696 4.68 3.86 14.3
Jack Morris 901.2 4.13 3.87 12.4
Jimmy Key 580 3.86 4.24 9.8
Bruce Hurst 490 3.95 3.7 6.7
Mike Boddicker 321.1 4.59 4.17 3.4
Frank Viola 259.1 4.03 4.65 3.2

It's a mixed bag, which is not surprising for players entering their mid-30s. Just like with Scherzer and Lester, there is too much risk associated with James Shields to seriously consider him as an option for a big free agent contract. While there is risk with Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Marco Gonzales, those players are 23, 22, and 23 years old, respectively. There is risk in top prospects like Alex Reyes and Rob Kaminsky given the growth those players still need to exhibit to make the big leagues, but the risk is still cheap in cost and the upside is considerably higher. When the Cardinals looked like they were struggling for pitching last season, the Cardinals were able to go out on the trade market and find it. The rotation has question marks, but until there is actually a problem, the Cardinals are best served to wait it out without tying up future payroll that could be better spent elsewhere.

Update: Although not the focus of this post, Derrick Goold at the Post-Dispatch went in-depth on the draft pick the Cardinals would lose if the team signed Shields. It is recommended reading. Last season, the pool included a comp pick for losing Carlos Beltran. Without the extra pick next year, losing the first round pick could severely impact incoming talent through the draft next year.