At what point does James Shields make sense for the Yankees?

February is here and James Shields still doesn’t have a team, despite arguably being the third best free agent available this offseason. Meanwhile, the currently crafted Yankees’ rotation is full of concerns. The back-end of the staff is thin, and the frontline starters have significant health concerns. If not now, the Yankees will probably need to fortify the rotation mid-season. Why play the game of wait-and-see, though? It sounds like the front office might be considering that question:

Shields has been baseball’s bastion of durability, throwing 200 innings in eight consecutive seasons. Of course, he’s not guaranteed to do the same in 2015, but he’s probably a better bet than anyone else in the Yankees’ rotation. Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow could go at a moment’s notice, as could Michael Pineda‘s shoulder. Who knows what CC Sabathia has left? Chris Capuano? Please. Ivan Nova won’t be back from Tommy John rehab until mid-season. The guy most likely to reach the 200 inning plateau is Nathan Eovaldi, who just fell short of the mark last year in Miami.

The funny thing about Shields’ biggest drawing card might be that it’s also his biggest drawback. He’s got a ton of mileage on his arm, having thrown more innings than any other pitcher since 2007. Tony Blengino makes a harrowing point:

Shields has also thrown the 2nd-most pitches of any MLB hurler over the last eight seasons, behind only Justin Verlander, who turned into a pumpkin — at least temporarily — last season. Before Verlander, the rolling eight-year pitch leader was Dan Haren, who promptly saw his performance decline. Before Haren, it was CC Sabathia. Before Sabathia, it was Barry Zito. Noticing a trend?

Now 33 years-old, Shields is almost certainly going to begin his decline in his next contract. He still looks pretty darn good for the coming season, though, after posting a 3.18 ERA and 3.53 FIP in his last two seasons with Kansas City. For 2015, Steamer foresees Shields’ ERA closer to his defense-independent pitching line, predicting a 3.63 ERA in 201 innings (3.0 WAR). Dan Szymborski hasn’t released his full 2015 ZiPS projection for Shields yet, but we do know a few things (all neutral park projections): (1) he’s forecasted for 15.1 WAR and 962 innings over the next five seasons, (2) his 2015 WAR estimate is 3.6, and (3) he isn’t projected to eclipse 200 innings in 2015 (although probably very close). Those estimates should be adjusted downward for Yankee Stadium.

On anticipated performance alone, it’s easy to conclude that Shields is a fit for pinstripes. The rotation is loaded with question marks, and although Shields has a massive prior workload, he’s still projected to maintain his health and productivity in 2015. The difficult task is to determine how many years the Yankees should be willing to concede. The Fangraphs crowd estimated a five-year, $90M pact a few months ago. Fast-forward to today, though, and it seems like a realistic possibility that Shields might have to settle for less, at least in terms of years.

As Syzmborski writes in his insider piece, ZiPS thinks that Shields is worth five years and $100M. However, there are a few things that might be hurting Shields in negotiations. As insinuated previously, his age and workload could have already scared a few teams off. What also must be considered is the forfeiture of a draft pick, because Shields declined the Royals’ qualifying offer. The Yankees would lose their 17th overall pick for signing Shields, but their compensation pick for the loss of David Robertson would also move up one spot, from 31 to 30.

Back in 2009, Sky Andrecheck (currently an analyst with the Cleveland Indians) performed a study to determine how much value each draft slot was worth in terms of WAR. If you’re interested in the details, I highly recommend reading it. For this piece’s purposes, the long story short is that the 17th pick can be expected to be worth roughly three to six WAR depending on who is selected:

If the 17th pick is a… Estimated WAR
College Pitcher 4.2
High School Pitcher 3.0
College Hitter 6.3
High School Hitter 5.2

Per ZiPS, we know that Shields is projected for 15.1 WAR over the next five years. It breaks down as follows: 3.6, 3.3, 3.0, 2.8, and 2.4. If we net Shields’ projected WAR against the range of expected WAR for the 17th pick, we get the following:

James Shields Netted against #17 Pick
Years Cumulative WAR Low-end (3.0 WAR) High-End (6.3 WAR)
1 3.6 0.6 -2.7
2 6.9 3.9 0.6
3 9.9 6.9 3.6
4 12.7 9.7 6.4
5 15.1 12.1 8.8

From this, we can derive the break even contract for Shields based on the value he adds and the value lost from the pick sacrifice. I won’t get into too much detail with present value calculations or park factor adjustments, so let’s keep it fairly straightforward. If we assume that Shields will get a contract of length no fewer than three years, and dollars-per-WAR on the open market equals $6M, here are the deals that would break even:

Years Low-End Pick High-End Pick Average Pick
3 $       41.4 $       21.6 $       31.5
4 $       58.2 $       38.4 $       48.3
5 $       72.6 $       52.8 $       62.7

Those pacts might be acceptable for the Yankees, although we are not factoring in the luxury tax. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine Shields agreeing to those amounts. As I noted earlier, Fangraphs’ crowd predicted five years and $90M for Shields. If we accept that he’s worth $18M per year, he still should obtain around $54M for three seasons or $72M for four. That’s far more than my analysis above.

Indeed, draft picks are far from a sure thing. Yet, considering where the team stands, I just don’t think Shields is worth it. Depending on your preferred projection system, the Yankees stand between 80 to 84 wins. They won 84 last season. It’s probably reasonable to guess that Shields would push them into the 84 to 88 victory range, but is that enough? Think about the opportunity cost here. What if signing Shields means no Yoan Moncada? What if it precludes them from another move down the road? Not that the Yankees are penny-pinchers, but their total payroll has been pretty stagnant the past few years. With that said, I don’t want a big chunk of the payroll going to a 33 year-old starter surely entering the decline of his career. It would be another band-aid to an organization in a transition phase.

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