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Yankees Potential 2015 Free Agent Target: James Shields

Could the reliable Shields be the antidote to the Yankees' injury-riddled rotation woes?

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

2014 Statistics: 227 IP, 34 GS, 3.21 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 180 K, 1.181 WHIP, 1.7 BB/9, 3.3 WAR

2015 Age: 33 (born 12/20/1981)

Position: Right-handed starting pitcher

In 2014, the Yankees' starting rotation managed to stay afloat and put up some pretty nice numbers despite four of their five Opening Day starters losing significant time due to injuries. First went Ivan Nova to Tommy John surgery after only four starts. Next up was Michael Pineda, who missed three and a half months thanks to a shoulder strain and setbacks. Then, declining former star CC Sabathia hit the shelf  with a knee injury, and eventually, like Nova, he would be lost for the season as well, as knee surgery put his future in serious jeopardy. Finally, the most crushing blow of all came in July, when new ace Masahiro Tanaka suffered a slight tear of his UCL that will likely lead to Tommy John surgery at some point in the future, though fortunately, platelet-rich plasma therapy and rehab pushed it off for the time being. Nonetheless, he was absent from the rotation for two and a half months.

Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon McCarthy, and Shane Greene all did yeoman's work to keep the rotation steady and productive, but going into the 2014-15 off-season with only Tanaka, Pineda, Sabathia, Nova, and Greene under contract for next year, it's clear that the Yankees could use some more starters. Perhaps the solution is just to try and bring one or both of free agents McCarthy and Kuroda back. However, no one would be surprised if the big-money Yankees decided to target some of the leading starters on the free agent market. One such pitcher is an old foe, one who has made more starts against the Yankees than any other active pitcher: James Shields.

There's plenty to mock regarding the silly "Big Game James" nickname that Shields is given, but there's no denying that Shields is one of the reliable pitchers in baseball. No one in the game has thrown more innings than the 1,785 2/3 he's pitched since the start of the 2007 season, way back when he was just a 25-year-old on the perpetual AL East doormat Devil Rays. He's averaged 33 starts and 223 innings pitched per year, and he's been even better after rebounding from a disastrous 2010 campaign. Shields was named an All-Star for the Rays in 2011, when he led the league with 11 complete games and four shutouts, all while pitching to a career-best 2.82 ERA and 3.42 FIP. From that season on, he's been pretty terrific on the regular: a 3.17 ERA (81 ERA-), a 3.49 FIP (89 FIP-), a 2.3 BB/9, and an average of  233 innings and 206 strikeouts per year. Given all these numbers, his injury history should be no surprise:

Shields injury history

Injury history courtesy of Baseball Prospectus

That's incredible, especially considering the state of rampant pitching injuries throughout baseball and the fact that Shields had shoulder surgery as a mere 21-year-old minor leaguer in 2002. He has never appeared on the Disabled List, and he has not missed a single start since he was a rookie eight years ago.

Knock Shields all you want for the silly nickname or whether or not it was actually worth it for the Royals to send Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi away in exchange for Shields and Wade Davis in the 2012-13 off-season. (After the 2014 AL pennant run? Yes.) The guy takes the ball every fifth day and pitches better than most starters in the game. He doesn't walk people, he gets more than his fair share of strikeouts, and his changeup is among baseball's best:

Shields changeup

GIF from Everything Pitching

Nasty. Shields is a damn good pitcher, and he's going to receive a pretty nice contract on the free agent market. He'll have draft pick compensation attached, but he'll be a somewhat-cheaper alternative for teams who don't want to give all the years and dollars that Max Scherzer and Jon Lester will command. He'll probably make whoever he signs with quite happy over the next couple years.

That being said, he turns 33 in December and I want no part of the Yankees signing Shields to the five-year, $95 million contract that MLB Trade Rumors suggests he might receive. I think that estimate is a little high, but the point is that his deal will be up around that echelon anyway. As with any free agent contract, the latter years of the deal will probably not be pretty as Shields enters his late-30s; eventually, he'll likely have to deal with injuries as well. Over at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan compared Shields quite favorably with McCarthy, who would cost less than Shields since he's more of an injury risk.

Despite that risk compared to Shields's reliability, it would probably be the better investment to simply retain the 31-year-old McCarthy. Shields would improve the rotation right now, but both his cost and future contract have to be a little concerning. The Yankees would probably be better off directing their finances elsewhere.