The ‘Great’ James Shields Docks in San Diego: A.J. Preller and the Padres Travel Ceaselessly Into the Past Again

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The slow spot on the baseball calendar between the last significant free-agent signing and the unavoidable anticlimax of pitchers-and-catchers is a season for senseless questions. Who won the winter? Who made the most noise, produced the strongest statement? Ultimately, those distinctions don’t matter: There’s no long-term multiplier effect from making the most offseason headlines, and the standings don’t discriminate between wins stockpiled gradually or added all at once.

If ever a team could derive a disproportionate benefit from winning a winter, though, it would be the San Diego Padres, who’ve spent the last several years speaking in whispers, losing attendance, and tiptoeing around the edge of the talent pool where teams are periodically expected to splash. Last summer, Josh Levin, host of the Slate podcast Hang Up and Listen, declared the Padres the least-discussed major sports franchise in the show’s history (NHL excluded). The following week, Deadspin’s Drew Magary labeled them the least hated team in baseball, another way of saying that they offered the least to love. “You need a resume to be hated,” Magary wrote, and the Padres had the sort of résumé that pads its “Computer Skills” section with a word-processing program. There was no World Series title; no post-2006 playoff appearance; no charismatic superstar; no farm system worth salivating over; no free-agent contract bigger than the two-year, $15.5 million deal Josh Byrnes gave Joaquin Benoit. There was only a fourth straight season of 70-something wins, which isn’t good enough to get excited about or bad enough to tip over into that fatalistic territory where fans of hopeless cases can take some solace in snark.

That was then. Late Sunday night, the Padres signed starter James Shields to a four-year, $75 million contract with a $16 million club option for a fifth season, and no one was surprised. Shields lives in the San Diego area, and the Padres lacked dependable pitching, so it’s a sensible match. Of course, it didn’t seem so sensible in November , when no one was predicting that Shields would pitch for the Padres. What changed? Not Shields’s location, and not the Padres’ pitching needs. The difference was December, a month of frenetic activity during which GM A.J. Preller reframed the Padres, turning an afterthought team into one we expect to make the major, obvious upgrade, even if it means topping the franchise’s biggest free-agent expenditure by a factor of five (unadjusted for inflation). That’s no small feat.

The pre-Preller Padres were James Gatz; the post-Preller Padres are Jay Gatsby, complete with a controversial past and a Long Island address. They weren’t born into playoff contention, and they didn’t work their way up via the traditional, tear-down-and-rebuild route. They took what they wanted and got good in one winter — a gaudy, West Egg way to win.

Preller’s first offseason focus was offense, and for obvious reasons: No number of adjustments for context could make San Diego’s 2014 lineup look like it wasn’t the worst in the league. The only way to avoid another low-scoring season was a complete purge, and Preller remade his roster more aggressively than anyone had expected, trading for Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Wil Myers,1 Derek Norris, and Will Middlebrooks. Some of those players are coming off disappointing seasons, and others are injury risks, but all are likely to produce more runs in 2015 than the players they replaced. The new bats elevated the team to the point where October could conceivably be one pitcher away.

San Diego Padres Introduce Matt KempAndy Hayt/San Diego Padres/Getty Images

The 2014 Padres could pitch: Even with historically bad hitters, they won 77 games. Other than Ian Kennedy, though, the 2015 staff figured to be fragile. Andrew Cashner, the team’s most talented pitcher, spent 89 days on the disabled list last season with shoulder and elbow ailments. Tyson Ross sat out the second half of September with a forearm flexor strain. Brandon Morrow, an earlier offseason signing, has landed on the 60-day DL in three straight seasons, and he’s not even the owner of the team’s most notorious glass arm: That dubious honor goes to Josh Johnson, who like Cory Luebke is recovering from a second Tommy John surgery. Shields is coming off eight consecutive seasons with 200 innings pitched — twice as many as the rest of the Padres pitchers, injury cases included, have combined for in their careers.

At some point, a history of heavy workloads starts to seem scary. Pitchers are always a source of anxiety: If they’ve been hurt, we worry about a recurrence, and if they’ve been healthy, we worry about wear and tear. Shields turned 33 in December and has thrown more than 225 regular-season innings for four years straight; last year, he added 30 postseason innings to his total, with an October ERA over 6.00. Although it would seem that so many starts would have to take a toll, high innings totals are better than the alternative: A heavy workload might (or might not) raise injury risk, but the strongest predictor of a future injury is a previous one. Shields hasn’t suffered anything more serious than a hamstring cramp since shoulder surgery cost him his second minor league season. Research shows that neither pitchers who’ve thrown as many regular-season pitches in a single year as Shields did last season nor those who’ve pitched in the playoffs have subsequently underperformed their projections as a group, at least in the following season. The more consecutive 200-inning seasons a pitcher has behind him, the more likely he is to sustain the streak.

Which doesn’t mean that Shields can keep sucking up innings indefinitely. He is the 10th pitcher since 1988 to throw at least 900 regular-season innings in his age-29-32 seasons. Here are the previous nine, with their innings pitched and WAR totals from 29-322 and from 33-36,3 the years through which Shields will be pitching in Petco.

Name IP1 WAR1 IP2 WAR2
Frank Viola 980.0 19.5 259.1 4.1
Mark Langston 954.2 20.7 490.2 5.5
Greg Maddux 938.1 31.2 901.0 19.2
Roy Halladay 930.1 21.8 702.2 17.1
Livan Hernandez 921.2 11.1 750.2 1.9
Bartolo Colon 906.1 17.5 257.0 -0.7
David Cone 904.2 26.1 668.0 18.7
Tom Glavine 903.1 22.3 919.0 15.3
Cliff Lee* 900.0 25.7 515.0 12.6
AVG (Excluding Lee) 929.9 21.8 618.5 10.1

*Entering his age-36 season

Everything has to go right for modern pitchers to total 900 innings over a four-season span, so it’s not surprising that this group regressed. Still, the numbers are eye-opening: a 33 percent decline in innings pitched and a 54 percent decline in WAR. The sample is too small to yield any conclusions, but it reveals the wide range of possible outcomes: The Padres’ new pitcher might age as gracefully as Maddux or Glavine, start strong before breaking like Halladay or Lee, or collapse like Viola or Colon.4 “Workhorse” isn’t a permanent appointment.

Still, as of yet there’s no reason to think that Shields will fall on the Viola side of the spectrum. His strikeout rate has declined, particularly relative to the league, but that could be a consequence of increased cutter usage and a slight shift away from the changeup, a pitch that appeared to desert him last year before returning at full force down the stretch. His control remains strong and his velocity has never been better. Both Steamer and the collective wisdom of FanGraphs readers put his 2015 value at three wins above the replacement-level pitching he’s probably pushing out.

Given what wins are going for on today’s free-agent market, an annual salary under $20 million is a reasonable rate, and a four-year commitment isn’t too onerous, especially in light of the Padres’ lack of financial commitments beyond 2015. Preller may have even received a slight San Diego discount.

Because he received a qualifying offer from Kansas City, Shields will cost San Diego the 13th overall pick in this year’s amateur draft, a commodity that former Padres analyst Chris Long values at $15 million. That changes the math, but not enough to affect the conclusion. Before the Shields signing, the PECOTA-powered depth charts at Baseball Prospectus put the Padres a game behind the Giants; FanGraphs’ depth charts pegged the gap at four games. At that playoff inflection point, a few wins go a long way, which makes Shields worth more to the Padres than the typical team. On the other hand, both depth charts agree that the Dodgers are either the best team in baseball or tied for first, which suggests that for all their upgrades, the Padres are playing for a wild card. A 50-50 shot at the NLDS is a much less valuable prize than the division title, although that hasn’t seemed to deter the other active teams competing with the Padres this winter.

Shields has experienced and, in some sense, presided over team transitions from perennial loser to pennant winner in Tampa Bay and Kansas City. In both clubhouses, he developed a reputation as a motivator and mentor, a spirit animal with the right stuff. Presumably, the Padres will now be the beneficiaries of whatever that’s worth, although their pitching staff isn’t particularly young or inexperienced — the club’s closest thing to Danny Duffy or Yordano Ventura is Robbie Erlin, the 24-year-old lefty whose rotation spot Shields at least temporarily takes. We don’t have a hard number for a nebulous skill, but the more chemistry bucks you feel comfortable baking in, the better the deal gets for San Diego.

As one would expect, given their rebuilding rush job, the Padres are a tacked-together team with a roster that’s rough around the edges. The infield is underwhelming — of the Middlebrooks–Yonder Alonso–Alexi Amarista–Jedd Gyorko quartet, only Gyorko projects to be average. The lineup and rotation lean heavily to the right. The outfield defense is ugly, and there’s still some deep downside — the Padres have ranked first, sixth, and second in days lost to injury over the past three seasons, and some of the players responsible are still expected to suit up. But Preller has created a wild-card contender out of whole cloth, talking teams into giving him bats without surrendering his most prized prospects and convincing Ron Fowler to set a Padres payroll record after years of spending uncertainty under John Moores and Jeff Moorad. After watching him work such wonders in one winter, one almost can’t help but hope that Preller gets his green light.

Filed Under: MLB, James Shields, San Diego Padres, MLB Offseason, Kansas City Royals, AJ Preller, MLB Hot Stove, MLB Contracts, MLB Free Agents

Ben Lindbergh is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ BenLindbergh