Pitchers Break, But You Still Need Them: James Shields

His future is so bright that… something, something. (via Keith Allison)

So far, we’ve looked at Zack Greinke & Hiroki Kuroda as potential starting pitching additions, and there’s more where that came from (though scratch one off the list now that Jake Peavy has remained with the White Sox.) But free agents aren’t the only place to pick up reinforcements; you can make trades, too. For a team like the Dodgers, flush with cash yet a little short on prospects, that can be a more difficult route.

While I still think free agency is the most likely option we’ll see, Mark Saxon reports that the Dodgers have made Tampa righty James Shields “their No. 1 trade target”, and he’s more than a little intriguing. The Rays will pick up Shields’ $10.25m option for 2013 this week, and he has another team option for $12m in 2014 before reaching free agency.

Shields has never really been seen as an “ace” by most fans, and it’s not hard to see why. To be honest, most people still don’t pay close attention to Tampa despite their recent success, and if they do they generally think of David Price. Shields also doesn’t blow you away with the traditional stats, since he’s lost at least 10 games in each of the last four years – mediocre Tampa offense? nothing to see here, move along – and his ERA has been all over the place, hitting each of the 2, 3, 4, & 5 run ranges over the last four seasons.

Still, there is a whole lot to like about Shields. Despite the ERA swings, he’s really been remarkably consistent. To start with, he’s fantastically durable; he’s never been on the disabled list, and he’s made at least 31 starts in each of the last six seasons. More impressively, he’s remarkably been able to both increase his strikeout rate (2012 was the highest of his career) and increase his groundball rate (another career high in 2012). As this June post from FanGraphs illustrates, it’s not a combination you see often:

Right now, James Shields combination of GB rate (1.9 StDevs) and K rate (0.9 StDevs) is the 24th best mark since 2002 by when you look at ground ball and strikeout rates together. And pitchers who put up these kinds of GB/K rates at the same time are generally dominant forces on the mound.

There have been 26 pitchers who have posted a combined StDev of between +2.5 and +3.1, which gives us a decent sample of pitchers who as a group have the same 2.8 StDev total as Shields. In those 26 seasons, these pitchers combined for an ERA-/FIP-/xFIP- line of 74/73/72. To put that in perspective, Roy Halladay‘s career line is 72/75/74. Basically, the group of pitchers who combined for something like the amount of GBs and Ks that Shields is getting now put up results that would fit right into Halladay’s career.

Rays blog DRaysBay chimed in with a review of his season last week:

Notice how Shields’ velocity range climbed during his later starts in the year. His fastball went from 88-93 to the 91-96 range (Unfortunately, the chart above mistakes many of his changeups for fastballs, since his changeup moved from the low-80′s to the mid to high 90s). Batters now were swinging and missing at his fastball, and it became a usable weapon.

By the end of the year, Shields had transformed into a power pitcher. The power pitching James featured a fastball that sat at 92-96, a changeup from 86-88, and a curveball in the 78-82 range. His changeup an curveball remained as good as ever, and his fastball generated weak swings. In his final start of the year when he struck out 15 Orioles in a complete game, Shields reached 95 mph or higher on his fastball or cutter 21 times.

(snip) Looking forward to 2013, the Rays should expect over 200 quality innings from Shields, good for four to five wins above replacement. But just like in years past, the way in which Shields accumulates the stats should be more interesting and entertaining than the repetitive consistency of his numbers suggests. In order for most pitchers to be successful, they must learn to adjust; consistency comes with change.

So if you’re willing to look past “wins” and “ERA”, Shields would seem to be a wonderful compliment to Clayton Kershaw. Better, the options mean that he’s signed to team-friendly deals for his age-31 and -32 seasons, after which you have no obligation to him as he ages. (If you really want to talk about a situation where a change of pants might be in order, imagine signing Greinke and trading for Shields, because, wow.)

But while Greinke requires only money (piles and piles of money), getting Shields requires players, and that’s where things get dicey. We need to consider why the Rays would even be open to trading Shields, and that’s because while they have a great depth in starting pitching, they have a pretty terrible offense outside of Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist.

Unfortunately, that makes the fit here awkward. Yes, we all heard the quickly-debunked theory that the Dodgers would trade Andre Ethier, but a contract like that makes no sense for the budget-conscious Rays. What they badly need are solutions at shortstop – since Sean Rodriguez, Elliot Johnson, & Reid Brignac all failed miserably, forcing Zobrist to play there – catcher, and first base. But the Dodgers aren’t exactly strong at those spots. I think it’s safe to say that Dee Gordon is available, but would he even represent an upgrade? Does anyone really care that much about Tim Federowicz or Gorman Erickson? Scott Van Slyke? It’s hard to say that they’re highly appealing trade prospects.

That makes a fit hard to see, even if Zach Lee is included as the centerpiece. (And he would be.) Considering that Greinke pulled in a good infield prospect in Jean Segura and two decent pitching prospects for only a half-season of work when he was traded from Milwaukee last year, we need to be realistic about what two full years of Shields would cost. Let’s start with Lee, of course, and add Gordon & Federowicz. And then… Joc Pederson? Chris Reed? Matt Magill? Pederson’s path to the bigs with the Dodgers is murky with all of the contracts in the outfield, but he’s at least two years away and the Rays aren’t rebuilding, they’re reloading.

So if the Dodgers want to make an offer for Shields, it’s probably something along the lines of Lee / Gordon / Federowicz / Reed. And to be honest, it’s hard to see that being enough. The Rangers could decide to go with Jurickson Profar at shortstop & make Elvis Andrus available. The Cardinals could try to replace Kyle Lohse (and perhaps Jaime Garcia) by offering nearly-ready megabat Oscar Taveras. The Angels, who were in on Shields this summer, might try to sell the Rays on replacing B.J. Upton with Peter Bourjos. And so on… every team who thinks they have a shot to make the playoffs in 2013 should be interested in picking up a very good pitcher on a team-friendly deal.

The more I think about Shields, the more I’d like him in blue… and the less likely I think it is to actually happen, “No. 1 trade target” or not.