The Red Sox have a lot of money to spend this winter, and a lot of areas of need. These types of situations tend to lead to a lot of disagreement. At this point, the only thing everyone agrees on is that the team needs to address it’s starting rotation, specifically at the top. While you’ll hear them connected to mid rotation types like Jason Hammel and Brandon McCarthy, they don’t help here. In free agency, it comes down to three guys: Jon Lester, Max Scherzer and James Shields. Assuming you read those big black words at the top of this page, you know who I’m advocating for.
Before we get into why Shields is a good fit for the Red Sox, though, we should take a quick look at the other two candidates, as they’re clearly nothing to sneeze at. We all know Lester and how good he can be. He’s coming off the best year of his career in 2014, and it looks like he’s entering an elite portion of his career. His strikeout rate reached peaks it’s never reached before, and he’s shown time and time again that he can pitch well on the big stage. He also won’t cost a draft pick. However, signing him to a six or seven year deal assuming he can keep up his career-best performance is scary. Specifically, was this spike in K-rate a one-year thing or will he pitch like that for the next few years? Some team may be very happy with the result of gambling on that, but the Red Sox have a lot of holes to fill to spend that much money on such a risk.
Photo Credit: Erza Shaw
Scherzer is the best starting pitcher on the market, even better than Lester. He’s your prototypical rotation ace, racking up more than a strikeout an inning like it’s nothing and limiting his walks. It’s actually somewhat surprising he hasn’t been linked to Boston more. With that type of performance comes with huge money, though. He’ll be the most expensive free agent this winter, and it may not be particularly close. Unlike Lester, though, he’s a pure power pitcher and those kind of guys seem to age much less gracefully than pitchers like Lester and Shields. There may be a couple years of elite pitching, but his decline is more likely to be a steep collapse rather than a gradual crawl towards doom.
Now, we get to the man of the hour (or like, 5 minutes. I really hope this won’t take an hour to read). Unlike the guys above, Shields isn’t going to take a six or seven year commitment. It’s possible he can be had on a four-year deal, and the most likely scenario is a five-year one. Of course, that doesn’t happen without some weaknesses. Most obvious is that he is the oldest in the trio, just finishing up his age-32 campaign. On top of that, he’s watched his K-rate and FIP both get worse for the second consecutive year. And despite his "Big Game James" nickname, he’s also struggled mightily in the postseason.
Although those aspects of his game may be the focus for some, there are still plenty of great things about the right-hander. For one thing, Shields is the very definition of a workhorse. If your ideal top-of-the-rotation starter is someone who will automatically take the ball every five days, this is your guy. He’s made at least 33 starts and thrown at least 200 innings every year since 2008, and just Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander have thrown more frames in that span. Stability like that is very valuable, especially if they decide to compliment him with someone a bit more injury-prone on the trade market (more on that in a bit).
It’s not just Shields’ consistent presence on the mound, though. Not only does he always make his starts, but he’s been productive, too. Going back to the start of 2011, he's been one of the better pitchers in the game. In fact, he has the 20th best ERA in that time, just .01 points behind guys like David Price and Zack Greinke. If park-neutral stats are more your thing, he’s even better, ranking 15th in ERA- in that same span.
It’s not just the four-year span, though. Shields was quite good in 2014 as well. He put up a 3.21 ERA (83 ERA-), which was just three spots behind Scherzer in the standings, and his ERA- was a top-25 mark in the game, and just two points worse than the former Tiger. Not to mention the fact that he was the best pitcher on a team that went to the World Series.
The big righty also walked fewer batters than he has in quite some time. His 4.7 percent walk-rate was a considerable drop from his 7.2 percent mark in 2013, and his lowest since 2008. While it was tough to see Shields’ K-rate to drop below 20 percent, his improved control and command made up for that.
It wasn’t just the walks, either. Shields was able to work around his strikeout decline in other ways as well. For one thing, he attacked the zone more often, limiting his pitch count and relying more on sequencing. This led to opponents chasing his pitches out of the zone more often than they ever had before, and making contact with those pitches more often than ever. While you generally want to avoid contact, allowing it on pitches outside of the zone rarely results in too much damage. This helped him get his ground ball rate back up after it took a tumble in 2013. It also played a role in him having his fourth straight year with a sub-.300 BABIP. The Red Sox defense should be good enough to help keep that streak alive.
There are plenty of reasons for Boston to sign one of Lester or Scherzer, and I couldn’t possibly be mad if they did. However, with all of the (likely expensive) holes they are going to address this winter, going with the more cost effective ace on the market is the smart move. They can compliment him atop the rotation on the trade market, dealing for someone like Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto. If they went with Lester or Scherzer, they may have to decide between one of those guys and Pablo Sandoval or Chase Headley. With Shields, they can afford one of the pitchers and one of the third baseman without much of an issue, and without needing to trade someone like Yoenis Cespedes. For something like five-years, $90-100 million, James Shields would be a great addition to the Red Sox.