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Red Sox 'early favorite' for free agent James Shields

The Red Sox need a top-of-the-rotation arm, and Shields will need a new home.

Jamie Squire

The Red Sox will need pitching help this offseason, and either through signings or trades, they're capable of bringing it in. Free agent James Shields has already been linked to them a few times this fall -- well, Red Sox interest in Shields, anyway, as the Royals' right-hander is still playing baseball -- and the Kansas City Star's Andy McCullough reportsthat they're the "early favorite" for signing him once that's an option this offseason.

The Royals are reportedly going to make a push for Shields when he leaves, but you as Red Sox fans probably know what that entails: an offer large enough to look like they tried, like the Sox have done in the past with Jacoby Ellsbury, with Jason Bay, with Victor Martinez, with many others they had no intention or expectation to re-sign, but wanted to put forth a visible, PR-friendly effort. Given that, it's going to be a battle among teams Shields has no loyalty or relation to.

McCullough reports that rival executives believe Shields will end up with a deal between $80 million and $110 million, spanning five years. That $80 million figure seems on the low, low side, considering that in the pre-season Shields was looking for Greinke money, but $110 sounds right over five. Five years also sounds great, as Shields will be 33 years old in 2015. He'll still be an elderly baseball player by the end of the contract, but given his repertoire and incredible durability, 38 is a reasonable age to pay him into.

Plus, what Shields is at 38 isn't why the Sox would sign him. What Shields is at 33, 34, and 35 are the primary reasons you bring him on board, as he can help lead a youthful Red Sox rotation that needs a leader both on and off the field. Shields has done that for the Rays and the Royals and has a reputation as a legitimate, influential presence on younger rotation mates. With Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Matt Barnes all on the way soon, and pitchers like Anthony Ranaudo, Brandon Workman, Rubby De La Rosa, and Allen Webster already here and in need of assistance, someone like Shields would be earning his money for more than just his work on the mound.

That $110 million -- and the five years attached -- would also cost significantly less than what Jon Lester will presumably bring in. Shields would cost the Sox a draft pick, but it would only be their second-round selection, as they have a protected pick at number seven overall. As the Sox have a competitive balance pick they acquired from the A's in the Lester for Yoenis Cespedes trade this summer, they would still have 10 picks in the first 10 rounds, even if they sacrificed one for Shields or another free agent expected to receive (and reject) the qualifying offer.

Shields has averaged 223 innings per year since 2007, his first full season in the majors. He had a down year in 2010 thanks to a spike in both his home run and hit rate, but has been otherwise excellent. Since 2011, Shields has a 124 ERA+, has averaged 233 innings per season, and has made at least 33 starts in each of those seasons. Like Lester figured out midway through 2013, Shields has already figured out how to succeed in his early 30s without the fastball of his youth, and he's never had a trip to the disabled list in his entire major-league career. No pitcher is a safe bet, but Shields is one of the relatively safer ones.