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Why the Blue Jays Should Sign James Shields

In roughly 1 month teams will be reporting to spring training. February is a beautiful time for baseball fans despite most baseball markets weather conditions not conducive to playing baseball. Yet with about 1 week to go in January, free agent James Shields still does not have a home. It’s getting oddly late for Shields to sign and there is no clear favorite yet to sign him. Over the last week however talk about the Blue Jays having interest has grown. What exactly is interest or internal discussion anyway?

It would come as no surprise that Alex Anthopoulos and his team have discussed Shields. AA often has mentioned that they discuss every free agent and potential trade acquisition as they assess their team needs at the start if the offseason. So when a report surfaced that the Blue Jays had internal discussion about Shields it should have come as no surprise. However with the ongoing reports and mention in the press it would appear that these discussions are more than internal player evaluations. As Shields reported asking price has dropped in the $80 – $100 MM range over 4 years, he becomes an interesting option for the Blue Jays.

Before we get too deep into Shields, lets consider what the potential Blue Jays 2015 rotation currently looks like. I will look at various factors age, salary, steamer 2015 projections, average 3 year war (fWar), 2014 numbers and risk/reward.

R.A. Dickey
Age: 40
Salary: $12 MM + 2016 $12 MM option or $1 MM buyout
Steamer 2015: 12-10, 192 IP, 4.27 ERA, 1.5 WAR
3 yr WAR AVG: 2.86
2014: 14-13, 215.2 IP, 3.71 ERA, 2.1 WAR
Risk & Reward: Low Risk & Average Reward

In his two years as a Blue Jay, Dickey has been a decent pitcher for the Blue Jays. He has given them 68 games started and more than 200 IP each season. He has been a classic, low risk veteran that goes deep into games and gives you around a league average ERA. In his two seasons as a Blue Jay he has an ERA+ of 101 which pretty much defines average. He is no ace but he should be about league average again and give the Jays lots of innings. Steamer isn’t so high on Dickey at aged 40 but Dickey is a rare pitcher since he relies on the knuckleball and his age regression is not typical.

Mark Buehrle
Age: 35
Salary: $20 MM, 2016 FA
Steamer 2015: 12-11, 189 IP, 4.45 ERA, 1.5 WAR
3 yr WAR AVG: 2.7
2014: 13-10, 202 IP, 3.39 ERA, 3.5 WAR
Risk & Reward: Low Risk & Average Reward

Much like Dickey, Buehrle has been a solid innings eater for the Blue Jays with about average results. Buehrle has the better ERA+ of 106 in his two seasons as a Blue Jay. He is pretty expensive this year at $20 MM for a pitcher who might be around league average but the Blue Jays took on the contract knowing this in the Marlins trade. As well Steamer isn’t so high on an aging Buehrle in 2015 but Buehrle has been a model of consistency in his career. You can expect some regression in 2015 but if you’re betting on innings and around league average results than Buehrle is about as sure of a bet you can take.

Marcus Stroman
Age: 23
Salary: League Minimum, FA in 2021 (earliest)
Steamer 2015: 13-10, 192 IP, 3.76 ERA, 3.3 WAR
3 yr WAR AVG: 3.3 (only 1 year)
2014: 11-6, 130 IP, 3.65 ERA, 3.3 WAR
Risk & Reward: Average Risk & High Reward

Stroman is on the opposite end of his career compared to Buehrle & Dickey. He didn’t do very well as a reliever but shined in his first season as a starting pitcher. Recently Jeff Sullivan from Fangraphs wrote that Stroman Discovered Roy Halladays Sinker and I highly recommend giving it a read. Stroman has the potential to be the true Ace that the Blue Jays have been missing. While it is too early to proclaim Stroman to be the next Roy Halladay he has shown signs of being an elite pitcher in the making. Steamer is much more positive regarding Stroman and is predicting an above average performance. Still he comes with some risk as he is still fairly unproven at the MLB level but 2015 could be his breakout year or at least set up a full breakout in the coming years.

Drew Hutchison
Age: 24
Salary: League Minimum,FA in 2019 (earliest)
Steamer 2015: 12-9, 173 IP, 4.07 ERA, 1.9 WAR
3 yr WAR AVG: 1.5 (2 years)
2014: 11-13, 184 IP, 4.48 ERA, 2.6 WAR
Risk & Reward: Average Risk & Above Average Reward

Hutchison had a good 2014 considering he was recovering from Tommy John surgery. While the ERA wasn’t great he showed a lot of positive signs with 9 SO/9, 2.9 BB/9 and a FIP of 3.85 suggesting he was a little unlucky. From my perspective Hutchison was proned to the occasional blow up which ballooned his ERA a bit. At only 24 and two partial seasons under his belt there is a lot to like about Hutchison. I have been a strong supporter as I love guys who have strong SO/BB ratios. Steamer is projecting him to be slightly below average but I think he will take a positive step forward in 2015. While I don’t expect him to have the ceiling of Stroman, Hutch could easily be a strong #2 or #3 for the Blue Jays for many years to come.

Marco Estrada
Age: 31
Salary: $3.9 MM, FA in 2016
Steamer 2015: 3-2, 55 IP, 3.43 ERA, .2 WAR
3 yr WAR AVG: 1.5
2014: 7-6, 150 IP, 4.36 ERA, -.3 WAR
Risk & Reward: Average Risk & Below Average Reward

Aaron Sanchez
Age: 22
Salary: League Minimum, FA in 2021 (earliest)
Steamer 2015: 8-9, 150 IP, 4.83 ERA, -.3 WAR
3 yr WAR AVG: .6 (1 year)
2014: 2-2, 33 IP, 1.09 ERA, .6 WAR
Risk & Reward: High Risk & High Reward

The leading candidates for the 5th spot comes down to Estrada vs Sanchez. This is a tough call as the organization has indicated that Sanchez is the future and they want to give him the chance but at the same time they could use him in the bullpen. In the bullpen his fastball which averaged 97.1 MPH combined with his Curveball at 81.4 MPH was enough to keep hitters off balance and he proved to be a dominant arm in the pen. Currently the pen is need of an arm like Sanchez and you could argue that he needs more time to develop his third pitch and a year in the pen could be good for him. At only 22 years old there is plenty of time to develop Sanchez but if he can he a dominant starting pitcher the Blue Jays want to give him that chance. The major issue is that in the minors he has struggled with his command and has a career 4.8 BB/9. Out of the pen in 2014 he was able to limit the walks to a respectable 2.5 /9 IP. You can make a similar case for Estrada in that he might be more valuable out of the pen and not the rotation. At the moment I think Estrada is the true leader for the 5th spot despite what the front office has suggested. I think Sanchez still needs more time to develop and even if Sanchez gets the first shot in the rotation there is a good chance Estrada gets more IP.

Currently you have two average inning eaters, one big young gun, one young gun on the rise and a battle for the 5th spot between the big name prospect and the aging soon the be relief pitcher. Overall its not a bad rotation, it has the potential to be good or even great but its more likely just average. If Sanchez is dominant than its a very solid rotation but thats asking a lot from a 22 year old prospect who has yet to show he can limit the walks and still needs work on his additional pitches. You can live with Estrada as a 5th starter but ideally he is better served in the bullpen. At the moment next in line is Daniel Norris who also is a big name prospect but still a big risk. While I like the depth, I believe it lacks options you can reasonably count on if you lose one of the top 4 to injury.

This is where James Shields comes back into play. Lets look at Shields in the same way as the Blue Jays projected rotation.

James Shields
Age: 33
Salary: FA, expected to be around $17-$20 MM over 4 years
Steamer 2015: 13-11, 201 IP, 3.62 ERA, 3 WAR
3 yr WAR AVG: 4
2014: 14-8, 227 IP, 3.21 ERA, 3.7 WAR
Risk & Reward: Low Risk & Above Average Reward

Shields would become the Ace of the staff even if he is more of a true #1A or #2 starting pitcher. Much like Buehrle you can count on Shields for 200 IP but you can expect those to be better quality innings of above average production. In his last 2 years with KC he had an ERA+ of 127 which is well above what Dickey & Buehrle have produced over the same period. Sliding Shields in the rotation gives the Blue Jays a stronger starting 5, more depth and takes the rotation from average to good.

Why Shields is the guy:

The Blue Jays have a strict 5 year max free agency policy. When it comes to signing the most elite players, this policy takes the Blue Jays out of the running. Shields is expected to sign a 4 year deal which puts the Blue Jays in the running.

Improve where you can. AA has taken the opportunity this offseason to improve the team where he can. He has not been able to fix 2B or the bullpen but he did improve at catcher, 3B and made some other savvy moves. Signing Shields gives the Blue Jays a net improvement in the starting rotation. It might not be the biggest hole but it solves a few issues.

Fixes the Bullpen. By signing Shields both Estrada and Sanchez can move to the bullpen. This gives the Blue Jays two reliable bullpen options and improves the pen’s outlook which is currently a weakness.

Gives Sanchez more time. As much as I am a fan of Sanchez I also believe he needs more time to develop. This takes the pressure off of needing Sanchez to be in the rotation. Once the rotation opens up in 2016 the Blue Jays can look to move Sanchez into a starting role.

Veteran for next 4 years. The Blue Jays have lots of young controllable pitchers who they expect to be the future. With Buehrle leaving after 2015 and Dickey leaving at the end of 2015 or 2016 this opens up two spots and around $33 MM. Having Shields as a fixture could help anchor the young staff.

Why Shields is not the guy:

Budget issues: As I mentioned previously there has been a lot of discussion around the Blue Jays payroll. If the Blue Jays only have $5-$7 MM left to spend than fitting in Shields would be tough for 2015. They can either backload the deal or clear more room by trading Navarro. AA has previously mentioned that even though they have a general payroll ownership is open to the discussion.

He doesn’t want to sign. The Blue Jays have had some issues in the past signing Free Agents. Whether its the fear of a foreign country, tax issues, playing on turf or any other list of reasons often FA don’t want to come. Russell Martin is the exception this year but he is Canadian and wanted to come home.

The Jays stand pat. The Blue Jays have several needs to fill and reportedly not a lot to spend. They could choose to stand pat on their rotation and try to address other needs.

The Blue Jays look to be a solid option for James Shields. The next few weeks should shed some light as to where he ends up. Stay Tuned!