It was recently reported that the San Diego Padres were considering making veteran starter James Shields available in a trade before the 2016 season starts. The Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox were two of the teams identified to have been in contact with the Padres. While an update to the report later on suggested that the Padres aren't in active trade talks about Shields, one has to think San Diego would move the right-hander if another team was willing to take on the rest of his contract. Should that team be the Yankees?
Coupled with pitching in a historically pitcher-friendly ballpark and playing the majority of games in the National League for the first time in his career, many expected the 34-year-old to put together another solid season in 2015. As FanGraphs points out, Shields had an odd year. While he posted a career high 9.61 K/9 and 25.1 strikeout percentage, he also saw a large increase in walks (3.60 BB/9 in 2015, as opposed to his 2.15 career BB/9 rate prior to 2015) and his home run to fly ball rate (17.6%, which dwarfed his 11.4% career rate prior to 2015) in 33 starts.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Shields' HR/FB rate at Petco Park was an incredible 21.1%, while on the road it was a much more manageable 14.4%. As FanGraphs points out, the rates at which a pitcher allows home runs can fluctuate from year-to-year, so its hard to read too much into it. A return to a HR/FB rate closer to his career average would likely result in a much more Shields-like season in 2016.
The FanGraphs article does make note of the fact that Shields did appear to change his approach in 2015 to focus on avoiding contact. The article speculates that he was either trying to make up for lost stuff, pitch through an injury, or avoid the Padres' defense (which ranked 26th in baseball in defensive runs saved and 19th in fielding percentage in 2015).
If Shields were to be dealt to the Yankees, perhaps Shields' numbers would benefit from the Yankees' defense behind him, which seems like it'll be much stronger in 2016 than the one the Padres trotted out last season. Perhaps if Shields trusts his defense to make plays, he might be more prone to attack the zone instead of shying away from it, which could help bring down his walk rate. Also, the fact that Shields has pitched in the AL East before and has tossed over 200 innings in every season since 2007 makes him seem like a solid fit for the Yankees' rotation.
No discussion involving Shields can take place, however, without the issue of financials arising. Shields is due to earn $21 million per year over the next three seasons. The Padres also hold a $16 million team option for 2019, with a $2 million buy-out in case the club wants to cut ties with the veteran. The Yankees made it very clear this offseason they intend to not spend big on the free agent market, perhaps with an eye on the 2018-19 free agent class. For what it's worth, Jon Heyman did report the following with regard to a possible Shields deal:
Padres are willing to pay some of shields' backloaded deal (21M per now), how much depends on return. Nothing thought close— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) March 25, 2016
However, Shields' contract may be of some help. Shields' deal does also include an opt-out following the conclusion of the 2016 season. If the Yankees feel the rotation as presently constructed is too unstable, they may feel compelled to gamble on a bounce back season from Shields, with the hopes that he opts out of the guaranteed two years and $42 million left on his deal in search of one final large payday.
Yes, there are a lot of major "ifs" here, however, an even bigger "if" is the present state of the Yankees' rotation given the struggles of some and the injury risks of others. Sticking Shields into the rotation and gambling on him having a resurgence in 2016 (with hopes that he opts out at the end of the year) might be a better gamble than going into the season with the rotation as currently built.
Obviously, money is a huge consideration in this, and the chances of a deal happening (or even being discussed) are probably very slim. However, a rotation with Shields in the middle of it seems a lot more promising and stable than one where the struggling duo of Ivan Nova and CC Sabathia occupy rotation spots.