White Sox right-hander James Shields will not opt out of the remaining two years of his contract, tweets SB Nation’s Chris Cotillo. Much like last night’s official report on Yoenis Cespedes planning to opt out of his deal, this news was widely expected, as Shields’ considerable 2016 struggles made it extremely unlikely that he’d forgo the remaining $44MM on his contract in search of a new deal.
Shields, 35 in December, was one of the marquee free agents of the 2014-15 offseason on the heels of a strong two-year run with the Royals and a four-year platform during which he averaged 233 innings of 3.17 ERA ball to go along with 8.0 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9. That lengthy stretch of excellence led to a four-year, $75MM contract originally signed with the Padres. That deal afforded him the right to opt out after his first two seasons in search of a larger contract, but Shields’ decline seemingly began the moment the 2015 season opened.
While his 2015 campaign was respectable, Shields’ numbers took a hit, as he logged a 3.91 ERA with 3.6 BB/9 and 1.5 HR/9. He still managed to clear 200 innings that year, though, and he averaged well over a strikeout per inning, giving some optimism that he could rebound in 2016. Instead, Shields struggled through the worst season of his career this year, logging a 5.85 ERA with 6.7 K/9, 4.1 BB/9 and a 40.4 percent ground-ball rate in 181 2/3 innings. Each of those numbers, including his innings total, was a career-worst for Shields dating back to his first full big league season in 2007. Further complicating matters was a fastball that averaged just 90.4 mph — a continuance in his velocity’s decline and almost certainly a factor in his stunning susceptibility to home runs (1.98 HR/9).
Shields actually got off to a solid start to the season and had a 3.06 ERA as late in the year as May 25, but he was shelled for 10 runs in 2 2/3 innings on Memorial Day. That brutal outing didn’t deter the White Sox from swinging a trade to acquire Shields and a hefty amount of cash to offset some of his contract shortly thereafter. The Sox sent righty Erik Johnson (who recently underwent Tommy John surgery) and minor leaguer Fernando Tatis Jr. to the Padres in exchange for Shields and about $31MM, which covered more than half of the $58MM he was still owed at the time of the trade.
At the time, the White Sox were in first place in the American League Central thanks to a hot start but were in need of some stable innings behind Chris Sale and Jose Quintana in the rotation. Highly touted young lefty Carlos Rodon was inconsistent early in the season, and right-hander Mat Latos was released in early June when he tanked after a strong start to the year. However, Shields was unable to function even as an innings eater in his new environs. He did have a nice seven-start stretch from late June through late July (2.11 ERA in 47 innings), but his overall work with the South Siders resulted in a 6.77 ERA in 114 1/3 innings.
The $31MM that the Padres included to facilitate the deal makes the White Sox’ remaining commitment to Shields a bit easier to stomach, as they’ll pay him $10MM in each of the next two seasons and will also be on the hook for the $2MM buyout of his 2019 option. While that’s certainly not an enviable financial obligation, it shouldn’t be entirely ruled out that Shields can rebound to at least eat up innings at the back of the Chicago rotation. The Sox aren’t paying him like the front-line pitcher he once was and don’t need him to perform as such, either, given the presence of Sale, Quintana and a seemingly improving Rodon ahead of Shields in starting mix. While it certainly seems likely that the Sox will shop Shields’ contract around this winter, it goes without saying that he’s a difficult piece to move, so the team’s best bet may simply be to hope for a better performance in 2017. If he can return to even his 2015 level of performance, he’d justify the $10MM that the Sox have committed to him in each of the next two seasons. If, however, 2017 brings more of the same, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Shields cut loose entirely.