Entering February, James Shields remains far and away the most eyebrow-raising name left on the list of open-market players. Shields ranked third on the big board of MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes coming into the hot stove season, but he has yet to sign despite the fact that we are now closer to the start of camp than we are to 2014.
It is somewhat difficult to assess how Shields reached this point and where he might expect to go. We here at MLBTR argued nearly one year ago that he was not likely to reach nine figures given his age, yet not more than a month ago he was reportedly in position to do just that. But momentum has never really seemed to gather towards a signing.
Regardless of the reasons why, surely, having entered the winter with an expectation that he would take home an average annual value approaching $20MM over four or five seasons, Shields should still manage to at least gain admission into that ballpark — right?
I’m not so sure, and recent reports suggest the same. While the still largely-unknown particulars of Shields’s market and the state of negotiations are the most important factors, precedent does suggest that the downside could go lower than merely giving up that fifth year.
This is not the first time in recent memory — or, if you prefer, the qualifying offer era — that the free agent market has been left with an unsigned, top-tier player heading into the month of February. Last year, Ervin Santana (6th) and Ubaldo Jimenez (11th) had to wait until after Valentine’s Day to sign, while 14th-rated Stephen Drew lasted through to the summer. In the 2012-13 class, No. 3 free agent Michael Bourn and No. 10 Kyle Lohse both languished.
Based on the experiences of those players, Shields faces an uphill path. To wit:
- Santana ($15MM) and Drew ($14.1MM, prorated) both ultimately settled for far less in terms of dollars and years than had been expected (see here and here);
- two mid-range arms in Lohse and Jimenez both had different experiences but landed within range of expectations, with the former perhaps earning more toward the lower end of his curve and the latter doing just the opposite;
- the most analogous player to Shields in terms of quality, perhaps, was Bourn, who entered the offseason accompanied by whispers that he might be looking for a deal approaching nine figures before settling for $48MM.
The Jimenez example shows that the market can still pay out at full price in February, perhaps especially for a starting pitcher who would upgrade virtually any team’s rotation. But all the other situations are less than inspiring, even when acknowledging their innumerable independent quirks and small aggregate sample size.
Let’s look back a bit further, using MLBTR’s Transaction Tracker (with filters applied). The tracker is admittedly sporadic before the 2006-07 signing year, but is solid to that point and dips back even earlier on more significant deals.
The results are actually somewhat startling: beyond Jimenez, only one single player — J.D. Drew, Valentine’s Day 2007, five years and $70MM with the Red Sox — cleared even the $50MM barrier. Indeed, only three other players — Max Scherzer (7/$210MM, 1/19/15), Matt Garza (4/$50MM, 1/26/14), and Prince Fielder (9/$214MM, 1/24/12) — signed for over $50MM in the second half of January. The bottom line is that it is late to find big money.
While it would be foolhardy to suggest that these highly context-specific data points tell us something immutable about how much Shields can earn, they do support the intuitive idea that Shields faces a greater possibility of a slide in earning capacity. That is all the more true, perhaps, given that he apparently values non-monetary elements enough to have already rejected a $110MM offer (though that reported figure has yet to be lined up with a plausible offeror).
What we do know (or think we know) about this specific market does not paint a rosier picture. Earlier today, ESPN.com’s Buster Olney cited (Insider link) rival agents who feel that Shields may need to jump if he gets three guaranteed years at a reasonable price tag. Truly interested teams are somewhat scarce, and all have reasons not to plunk down anything approaching $100MM, as Olney’s colleague Jayson Stark recently wrote.
To be sure, plenty of time remains for the market to re-develop and the cost to go back up, to say nothing of a (perhaps unlikely) scenario in which Shields waits to see if injuries or other issues crop up this spring. But if Shields’s AAV does indeed fall below the expected $18MM to $19MM range, a three year pact could well land at or below the $50MM mark. Of course, as the above discussion shows, even reaching that threshold at this point in the offseason timeline would actually represent a rather unusual achievement.