Padres Sign James Shields, Put the Future on Hold

James Shields was arguably the second best starting pitcher available in this free agent class, clearly behind only Max Scherzer. Conventional wisdom says Jon Lester, who signed with the Chicago Cubs earlier this offseason, is also better than Shields, but the numbers paint a different picture. Consider the three-year average for each pitcher:

Player Innings ERA ERA+ K/BB Ratio
Jon Lester 213 3.65 111 3.08
James Shields 228 3.29 121 3.52

Now, there are some very real pluses for Lester that aren’t factored in above. First, he’s been better for his career than Shields. The last three years include two of Lester’s worst seasons while ignoring his previous dominance. Second, unlike Shields, he’s been a marvelous big game pitcher, and all that postseason success has to count for something. Perhaps most of all, Lester’s two years younger than Shields. So while Shields and Lester may be closer than conventional wisdom would suggest going forward, we’ll give the nod to Lester. He’s a bit better and probably a better bet to provide more value both in the short- and long-term. But did you see the respective deals each of them signed?

Lester inked a six-year, $155 million deal with the Cubs back in December while Shields signed with the Padres late on Sunday night for a measly four years and $75 million (both deals include an option). That’s less than half of Lester’s deal, in terms of overall dollars. Of course, four years and $75 million is a lot of money for any pitcher — even one as (thus far) indestructible as Shields — but compared to the deal Lester signed, it looks like a free agent bargain.

And unlike some of the moves AJ Preller has made so far this offseason, the Padres had a glaring hole at the top of their rotation that had Shields’ name on it, one that he should capably fill both as an above average starter and as a certified eater of innings. As we’ve discussed at various points this offseason, the pre-Shields rotation was significantly overrated. It lacked varying combinations of star power, depth, and reliability.

With Shields at the top, however, the rotation looks more like a potential force than a liability. Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, and Ian Kennedy can sort themselves out in the middle of the rotation, where they all belong. The back of the rotation, which, at least until one of the top four hit the DL, consists only of the fifth starter spot, should be in good hands with some combination of Brandon Morrow, Josh Johnson, Odrisamer Despaigne, etc. Even the bullpen looks better with Shields in the rotation, as one or two of those previous three names might find a permanent home as a reliever, adding a low-leverage swing-man (or potentially something more) to an already deep relief corps.

Suddenly, the Padres have transformed from bottom feeders to fringe contenders to legitimate contenders — at least for the wild card — all in a single offseason. PECOTA’s latest projections, which I believe include the Shields acquisition, have the Padres at 85 wins, fourth-best in the National League. There’s still no division in baseball with a bigger gap between first and second than the NL West, according to PECOTA, as the Dodgers are projected to win 97 games on the strength of the best projected offense in the NL and a Clayton Kershaw-led rotation. Still, after the Dodgers, Nationals, and probably Cardinals, there aren’t any NL teams that are clearly superior to the Padres.

But going from an afterthought to a playoff threat in one offseason does have it downsides. The Padres have already surrendered a good chunk of the farm system, not to mention young players like Yasmani Grandal and Jesse Hahn, to expedite the turnaround. With the Shields move, the Padres have again put more emphasis on winning right now, not in a couple of years or in a five- or seven-year stretch. They’ve narrowed the window, you might say. That’s good because we all live in the right now, and a high percentage of long-term rebuilds only lead to more long-term rebuilds. But it’s bad (or, at least, a little bit scary) because it puts a significant amount of pressure on this team — and on older players like Kemp and Shields — to win in 2015 and 2016, before too many contracts turn into the kind the Padres wish they could make disappear.

Further, the Padres will give up their first-round pick in this June’s amateur draft, the 13th overall selection, as penalty for signing Shields. That might not seem like a big deal, especially with meaningful late-season baseball anticipated in San Diego for the first time in nearly half a decade, but it’s another non-insignificant cost to Preller’s offseason scramble. As you might expect, a historical glance at the 13th overall pick includes a few superstars (Manny Ramirez, Frank Tanana, Chris Sale), a number of solid players (Paul Konerko, Khalil Greene, Garry Templeton), and the usual cast of busts. It’s not as though the 13th pick is a golden ticket to baseball’s Next Big Thing, but it would have presented the Padres with a good opportunity to restock the farm system with a bonafied prospect.

How much is the 13th selection worth, anyway?

Maybe that’s not too significant a loss, but it definitely has to be factored in when considering the Shields investment.

Perhaps thoughts about the future can wait. In a National League with three clear favorites and a number of middle tier contenders unable to differentiate themselves from the pack, the Padres stand a good shot at making the playoffs in 2015. With an extra wild card team getting to October, San Diego’s probably somewhere near the playoff “sweet spot,” which means each additional win added has more significance to the Padres — and their mid-80s win projection — than it does to, say, a projected 75 or 97 win team. If Shields is the guy that puts them over the top in 2015 (and/or 2016), it’ll be easy to justify both his contract and the lost draft pick in the long run, even if come 2018 that 13th overall pick has turned into a promising young big leaguer for the Rays and Shields is slogging through the final year of his contract as an overpriced albatross.

Winning equals more money for the Padres, and more money equals more winning — at least in theory. If the Padres can turn the franchise around in AJ Preller’s first couple of years as general manager, they’ll earn plenty of extra cash — think attracting lifelong fans, think additional playoff revenue, and think more and more season ticket packages. With more money, hopefully, comes more investments, not only in the 25-man roster/payroll, but also in the draft, in the international market, and in more front office man(and woman)power.

The Padres could have gone about their attempted turnaround in a different way. They could have hired AJ Preller (or a different GM) with aims to tear everything apart and build from within. Nobody would have called them crazy — in fact, it might have been the optimal plan given the state of the roster when Preller took over. They could have sold off anything of value and put all of their investments into amateur players, scouting, development, etc. They could’ve done an Astros or Cubs-style rebuild, and we all probably would have been on board.

But they didn’t. Instead, the Padres hired Preller with the intent to convert a projected mid-70s win team into an immediate contender. They gave him flexibility to bring in his front office, they gave him flexibility to treat the offseason like you might treat your fantasy offseason, and, finally, they gave him flexibility to spend. Remember, just under a month ago, we discussed how the Padres still hadn’t increased their payroll compared to last year’s Opening Day mark. As Nate said yesterday:

Also, with Shields’ contract added, the Padres 2015 payroll will likely sit somewhere in the $105 million range when they head to camp, which if it stays that way until opening day would be by far a franchise record. It’s also very close to where team payroll should be based on projected revenue, and percentage of revenue spent on payroll has long been an area where the Padres have lagged behind the rest of the league.

So the future’s on hold. As a welcome change, we’re living in the present, and it’s hard not to be excited about what this year might bring. We can still fret about the future, and Preller and Co. surely will, too. To win consistently in San Diego, you’ve gotta build from within or eventually the walls will come closing in. Preller still has time to figure out what to do about Yoan Moncada and, more so, the international amateur scene in general, and there probably isn’t another general manager in the league better positioned to make that assessment. And while losing the first-round pick this year hurts in the stateside draft, the Padres will collect an early pick next year if Justin Upton departs via free agency (and potentially one for Ian Kennedy, too). And, anyway, baseball’s draft, more so than the other major sports, is one where putting all your eggs in the first-round pick isn’t necessary — there are 40 rounds, after all. Not to mention, high-upside players like Matt Wisler, Austin Hedges, and Hunter Renfroe still exist on the farm, having survived the wrath of the trade (so far).

The future, hopefully, will work itself out. With Preller and a smart, creative, hard-working front office installed, that has to be the plan. But for now, the future isn’t the only thing to look forward to. The Padres have a 25-man roster that includes James Shields, Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Justin Upton, Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, Ian Kennedy, Jedd Gyorko, Derek Norris, and Alexi Amarista.

Wait, how that’d last guy slip in there. Nevermind — you get the point. This team could be really good. Even if they’re not, they’ll be fun to watch.

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