The left-handed domino fell in the early hours on Wednesday morning when Jon Lester finally made his decision. He opted for a six-year deal worth a reported $155 million with the Cubs, spurning overtures from Boston and San Francisco. With Lester off the board, the rest of the pitching market will begin to experience movement — and now James Shields can enter the foreground.
Shields, the bulldog of the Kansas City Royals’ rotation the last two seasons, has resided in the shadows thus far in his first foray into free agency. His agent, Page Odle, has kept a low profile and declined interview requests. But rumors involving Shields should become more prevalent in the coming days.
Shields can slide into the vacuum between Lester and Max Scherzer, the other top-flight pitcher available. Scott Boras, Scherzer’s agent, is famous for delaying the negotiations for his players, content to wait out opposing clubs until they crack and reach his price. So Shields can draft off Lester’s momentum and move toward a deal.
The Royals have maintained contact with Shields, but there appears to be only a tiny chance of a reunion. As he approaches his 33rd birthday later this month, Shields has his best chance to cash in. General manager Dayton Moore repeats an axiom about his team’s inability to compete with bigger markets for the highest-priced free agents. So barring any unforeseen change in the Royals’ philosophy, Shields will pitch elsewhere in 2015.
The Red Sox finished second in the Lester sweepstakes. They have long been connected in trade talks with Phillies starter Cole Hamels, but the cost in prospects would be prohibitive. The Dodgers could also pursue Shields. He grew up in Los Angeles County, and moved to the San Diego area last year.
Before this winter, rival executives pegged Shields’ value at around a five-year deal worth somewhere between $85 million and $100 million. It will be curious to see if Lester’s deal ups his price.
Lester is two years younger than Shields. He is also left-handed. He also out-performed Shields in 2014. He posted a 2.46 ERA with a 9.0 strikeout per nine ratio for Boston and Oakland. Shields managed a 3.21 ERA with a 7.1 strikeout rate, his lowest since 2009.
Shields has always prided himself on his body of work, his ability to accumulate innings and protect his team’s bullpen. Surely he can bolster his case in that regard. From 2011 to 2014, Shields logged 132 2/3 more innings than Lester (932 2/3 to 830). His ERA was 3.17 with a 7.95 strikeout rate. Lester clocked in at a 3.61 ERA with an 8.08 strikeout rate.
So it is unlikely Shields fetches a six-year deal or a payday that approaches $150 million. But his resume is still strong. And his time to shine on the free-agent market is now.