James Shields has been a 223-inning workhorse for 9 years, and that probably has hurt him in free agency.
Don’t misunderstand why James Shields is still unsigned. Every team would love to have him. They appreciate how good he has been during nine full big league seasons. Beyond that, those teams that have done their homework have come to understand he’s also a great leader with a relentless work ethic that rubs off on other players.
The Rays and Royals will tell you that he played a role in creating a winning culture on their teams. He did it with his own personal expectations and with the way he performed. He did it by being a good teammate and by emphasizing that the bottom line was what mattered.
So why is he still a free agent with the final countdown to Spring Training about to begin? That’s simple. The marketplace can be a cold, cruel world. It’s where you find out if you’re worth what you thought you’d be worth. Again, every team would love to have Shields. The only question is cost, and so far no team has made an offer that has compelled Shields to sign.
In an odd twist, his greatest strength probably has negatively impacted his free agency. In the last nine seasons, he leads the majors with 1,785.2 innings. Only Justin Verlander has started more games in that time. Only Justin Verlander has faced more hitters or thrown more pitches.
Shields is also 33 years old, and so it’s reasonable to wonder how long he can continue to perform at a high level. There is no reason to think he’s in decline. According to fangraphs.com, his fastball averaged a career-high 92 .4 mph last season. His strikeout rate was down slightly, but so was his walk rate.
What has almost certainly happened in recent days is that the market has been reset. He’s probably going to end up with fewer years and dollars than he originally thought. He’s going to make a pile of money, but possibly not as much as he first thought. Again, though, there’s every reason to think he can continue to pitch at a high level.
As Randy Johnson told reporters one spring, “If you guys keep writing me off every year, one of these years you’ll be right.” That’s how it is with James Shields. He will not pitch forever. But there’s every reason to think he’s going to make some team very, very happy about their decision to sign him.