Over the weekend, the long saga of James Shields, Pitcher For Hire finally came to a close, with Shields accepting a four year, $75 million contract from the San Diego Padres. $75 million is a pretty nice payday, but it’s a little less than half of the $155 million that Jon Lester received from the Cubs, and nearly one-third of the amount the Nationals will pay Max Scherzer over the life of his new contract. Because of how long it took Shields to sign, and the vast difference in guarantees between what he got and what the top two hurlers on the market got, Shields’ agent — Page Odle — has come under some criticism for how he marketed his player.
Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, for instance, offered up some interesting information about Shields’ early off-season asking price.
Shields found himself mentioned with the other two big-name free agent starters, Max Scherzer and Jon Lester. Consequently, his agent, Page Odle, started asking for terms in similar neighborhoods.
As the Red Sox proffered a six-year, $120 million opening offer to Lester, Odle sought terms in that range, according to multiple clubs involved early in the negotiations. One executive said Odle started discussions with a six-year deal in mind. Another confirmed what the Kansas City Star wrote Monday: He simultaneously was shooting for a five-year, $125 million pact with others.
After Lester signed, Shields could have pounced and ramped up negotiations. GMs expected that parry. They held firm, figuring Odle would lessen his demands. That never happened. Shields ended up in San Diego of his own volition, because had he budged earlier, executives believe he would have received plenty more.
There’s a reason no pitcher had signed for more than $50 million in February: No pitcher was foolish enough to wait until February to sign. Most teams, at this juncture, have locked-in budgets that need special dispensations to move. San Diego happens to be in the midst of a complete overhaul, so general manager A.J. Preller walked into negotiations with monetary flexibility – and the knowledge that were he to whiff on Shields, he could trade for Cole Hamels.
A simple move – lowering the expectations on the deal to four years – would have sparked the market. The San Francisco Giants originally were interested at around $80 million over four years. At least a dozen teams would listen at four years, and of those, surely one would pledge $21 million a year times four to separate itself. Which would prompt a jump to $22 million a year, maybe $23 million, and when you add in a club option as a sweetener, that’s a contract that potentially jumps comfortably into the nine-figure range.
$125 million to $75 million is a big drop, and Passan’s information adds context to the question of why Shields sat unsigned for so long. That said, I am left wondering if perhaps what we saw was not so much Shields’ agent overplaying his hand, but instead, the market gently reminding us all that major league teams aren’t valuing pitchers the same way anymore.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.