Milwaukee Brewers Next Move: Sign James Shields?

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Yesterday, the Milwaukee Brewers reportedly agreed to trade long-time starter Yovani Gallardo to his hometown Texas Rangers. The trade still has not been announced by either franchise, nor have their been any details released about what specific package the Brewers may get in return for the soon to be 29 year old righty, though it’s been reported that the deal is done “in principle” pending medical reviews.

Depending on the return or if Milwaukee included any of the $13 mil Gallardo is owed for this season, the Brewers payroll now projects to be around $95 mil for 2015. Following this season, the contracts of Aramis Ramirez, Kyle Lohse, Gerardo Parra, Adam Lind (club option) and Jonathon Broxton (club option) come off the books, which equals out to almost $50 million. Moving Yovani allows the Brewers to be more creative in their personnel decision in the near term, and their long term payroll flexibility have led to a lot of speculation that the Brewers could pursue a big addition to their starting rotation.

Following the signing of Max Scherzer by the Nationals, the best remaining free agent starter is 33 year old righty James Shields. Shields helped the Royals reach the World Series in 2014, anchoring their rotation with a 3.21 ERA in 227 innings, posting a 180/44 strikeout to walk ratio and a 1.18 WHIP, good enough for an 18th place finish in the MVP voting. The Royals made a Qualifying Offer to James, meaning that any teams that signs him will have to surrender their highest non-protected draft pick. Shields has been the definition of reliable over his career, throwing at least 200 innings every year since 2007, and his highest ERA over the past four seasons was 3.52 in 2012.

Shields woulds would immediately slot into the top of the rotation, giving the Brewers the true “ace” type pitcher that they currently lack. The Brewers had clear aces during their postseason runs in 2008 (C.C. Sabathia) and 2011 (Zack Greinke), so it could be likely that GM Doug Melvin thinks the Brewers need a proven ace atop their rotation to make a deep postseason run. Owner Mark Attanasio has proven he has been willing to open the pocket book for pitchers in recent seasons, although a potential Shields’ contract would easily eclipse the club record deal Matt Garza received last offseason.

Shields continues to age well. His fastball velocity has actually increased each season since 2011 according to Pitch F/X, topping out at a career high 92.5 MPH in 2014. His 1.74 BB/9 was the best mark he’s put up since 2008. He improved his ground ball rate to a solid 45.2% in 2014, and he’s posted a 44.7% mark over his career. He’s been lower than 1.0 home runs per nine each of the past four seasons. Fangraphs values Shields at 16.6 wins above replacement since 2011, and his 3.0 WAR projection from Steamer would be the best among Brewers starters by a full win.

Shields doesn’t come without his question marks, however. While he posted an ERA+ of 124 in 2014, his FIP and xFIP marks believe he should’ve been closer to a number between 3.50-3.60.”Big Game James” has also failed to live up to that name in the postseason. Over 11 starts covering 59.1 innings, Shields is 3-6 with a 5.46 ERA, giving up 11.5 hits/9. He was 0-2 in last season’s World Series, giving up seven runs in nine innings, covering two starts.

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It’s been reported that Shields had an offer on the table for $110 mil, but he declined it due to an unwillingness to play for that (unnamed) team. No doubt that Shields would cost the Brewers a pretty penny, and it’s likely that he will try to leverage a fifth year on to what will likely be his last chance for a major free agent contract. Given Shields advanced age, I would be very cautious in offering him a deal that would likely pay him close to $20 mil at age 38. If the Brewers could convince him to take a four year deal, it would work much better in Milwaukee’s favor. As we saw with the Scherzer contract, creatively deferring some money is also a possibility. With his QO, the Brewers would have to give up their first round pick, which would make it the second time in three seasons that Milwaukee doesn’t pick in the first round.

Signing James Shields would certainly qualify as the “big move” that some fans have been clamoring for following the epic collapse of 2014. Shields will likely cost the Brewers a lot of money and would force them to give up their first round draft pick, but would save them from having to give up any of the players they will be potentially acquiring from Texas. The Brewers have a lot of money coming off the books following this season, setting them up to make a potential long term offer. Of all the possible “big name” trade/free agent pitching options the Brewers could pursue, signing Shields would make the most sense to me. He’s aging well, he’s been a consistently strong performer, and he will cost the team the least in terms of personnel.

We’re still waiting confirmation that Gallardo has even been traded, so we might be getting ahead of ourselves with speculation. At least we finally have something to talk about, right?

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