I don’t know if you heard, but the Red Sox made a few additions to their rotation yesterday. After entering the offseason with Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly as their only legitimate MLB starting pitchers, they’ve addressed their biggest need with the likes of Wade Miley, Rick Porcello and Justin Masterson. So, if the season started today, they’d actually have a rotation full of actual starting pitchers, which is pretty cool. Of course, the season doesn’t start today, and the rotation rebuild likely isn’t done. That’s not to say the names they brought in aren’t good additions, though. There is value in adding a bunch of mid-rotation guys to a team that should have a dynamic offense. With that being said, they probably need to add one more guy who can slot into the number one spot.
Lucky for them, there are certainly some names out there who fit that mold. The top pitcher on the market, Max Scherzer, is still out there. Guys like Cole Hamels, Doug Fister, Jordan Zimmermann and Johnny Cueto could all be available in trades as well. However, the most likely candidate may be James Shields, considering the acquisition costs of the other names listed. He’s not a new candidate to be added, of course, but with Jon Lester in Chicago, and the pitching market moving a furious pace, the focus on him is now greater. And with that focus, comes the opinions. For some reason, those opinions about the former Ray and Royal are overwhelmingly negative around these parts. Surely there are things to be worried about with Shields, but there are plenty of positives to outweigh those negatives.
Judging from the newest acquisitions, as well as quotes from the team itself, it's clear that Ben Cherington and company are putting plenty of value into durability this offseason. It’s a good idea, too, since putting too much faith into the young depth can be harmful to a team hoping to contend, as we saw last year. This is the area in which Shields brings the most value. He’s a guy who starts 30+ games every year and tosses 200 innings in his sleep. Over the last four years, he’s averaged just over 233 innings, a mark that only four pitchers topped last season. If the Red Sox are truly valuing durability, making their top pitching acquisition a guy with those kind of numbers makes plenty of sense.
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While his strikeouts have fallen a bit in the last few years, Shields has made up for that by giving up fewer and fewer free passes. Last season, Big Game James* walked just 1.7 batters per nine innings, good for 14th in the league. Strikeouts are up around the league, but having guys who can keep players off the bases if still hugely valuable. Though the overall defense should be fine, we don’t know how Hanley Ramirez will adapt to left field, Xander Bogaerts is still a question mark at shortstop, and Mookie Betts is still learning the outfield. Having guys like Shields and Porcello atop the rotation limiting free base runners is a boon for a team with a defense with some uncertainty.
*Sorry, I had to throw that in somewhere.
He only costs money
John Henry has made it clear that he’s not worried about surpassing the luxury tax threshold in 2015, meaning signing a big-money pitcher in addition to the likes of Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval is in play. While that doesn’t mean signing Scherzer to the massive contract he’s likely to receive is probable, going one step down to Shields makes a ton of sense. The trade targets, on the other hand, are going to cost big time prospects who Boston would obviously prefer to hold on to. While some have mocked Philadelphia for holding out for one of Bogaerts, Betts or Blake Swihart, there is no reason they can’t hold on to Hamels for a few more months - or ever a year - and reassess the situation later. It would be risky for the Red Sox to wait that long and see Shields come off the board while they do. Cueto, Zimmermann and Fister may not take as much, but they are one year rentals, and giving up valuable pieces for the future for one year probably isn’t wise. Obviously, it’s dependent on the cost, but getting Shields for something around 5/100 is much more appealing than giving up future value for a short-term fix, or dealing one of the Big 3.
He can be a mentor
Porcello is younger than prospects you still dream
Rick Porcello isn't like, Mookie Betts young. But he is younger than that guy you keep expecting to break out.
Are intangibles overrated by some people? Yes. That doesn’t make them meaningless, though. Despite trading away Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa, the Red Sox still have young arms in Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, Brandon Workman, Henry Owens, Brian Johnson and Eduardo Rodriguez who will be coming up to the bigs soon. Having a veteran who can take them under his wing and help them adjust to the highest level can be very important for their development. It’s not a role that everyone can succeed in, but by all accounts Shields fits it perfectly. He received rave reviews in this area in both Tampa Bay and Kansas City. It’s not something that you entirely base a decision on, but it’s an important quality to keep in mind, and something that can help tip the scale.
Playoff numbers are overrated
I don’t think I need to go too in-depth here. When presented with the large sample of one’s entire career, or the small snippet of information in a player’s postseason stats, it’s obvious which one to go with. There is a long history of players who were terrible when the playoffs rolled around, until they weren’t. Remember when Alex Rodriguez was the world’s biggest choke artist, then killed it in 2009? There are a ton of issues to look over before a GM would even think of checking in on playoff numbers.
He’s, like, good at pitching
This is the part that gets lost in most of the criticisms. The guy is one of the better pitchers in the game. Yes, he’s on the wrong side of 30. Yes, his strikeouts have fallen in the last few years. Yes, the free agent market is inefficient by nature. James Shields is a really good pitcher, though. Over the last three years, he has a 3.29 ERA, a 121 ERA+ and a 3.51 FIP. Just looking at last season, that line was 3.21, 124, 3.59. Despite the fall in strikeouts, his K/BB ratio has stayed at a near-elite rate. In 2014, he ranked 17th in baseball in that category, just ahead of Fister, and just two spots behind Lester. The guy can deal, and if a number one or two, depending on how you define those. Either way, he's worthy of the top of basically any rotation.
If and when the Red Sox do sign Shields, there are going to be a lot of people upset by the move. There will be some inane arguments against it, and there will be reasonable reasons on why it was a questionable move. Don’t let those criticisms paint the entire picture, though. They could do a lot worse than him. Is he going to be a "true ace" like Lester was last year? Probably not. Is he going to perform at a high level for the length of his contract? Almost certainly not. Boston needs one more arm to put at the head of their rotation, though, and James Shields fits a lot of their needs while only costing money, and not an obscene amount of it.