Where in the world is James Shields?
Where has he been? Where is he signing? How is it even possible that here, in the third week of January, he's still looking for work, alongside all the Stephen Fifes and Scott Bakers on the baseball unemployment line?
These are the questions we hear round the clock all of a sudden, from executives all over baseball. Jon Lester has been off the board for almost six weeks. Max Scherzer has now joined him. So how did James Shields turn out to be the Last Free-Agent Ace Standing?
"I don't think anyone really knows what happened there," said one GM.
"I don't understand this," said another.
"Something must have happened," said a rival agent.
More than a month and a half ago, leading up to the winter meetings, I took a fun little survey of nine executives and agents. All I asked them was to pick the date when Lester, Scherzer and Shields would sign.
None of them predicted Scherzer would find a team before Shields. None of them even thought Shields would be unsigned on Christmas morning. So it's official. Nobody was psychic enough to see this coming.
And now that's led to a whole new guessing game: Where will this guy end up?
I've spent the past few days looking into Shields' fit with every team he's been linked to. Here is what numerous sources have told me:
• Marlins: They've been connected with Shields in a barrage of reports. But I was told the chances they'll sign him are currently "zero."
• Diamondbacks: Their GM, Dave Stewart, said last week he's talked with Shields' agent, Page Odle, and more than once. And as you've no doubt heard a few billion times, Stewart said his club would be interested if Shields were willing to make "concessions" to join the D-backs because he believes they're "a true baseball team." We'll stay out of the true-baseball-team debate for now. But the real truth is this: The Diamondbacks are already overbudget, thanks to their $8.27 million deal with Cuban pitcher Yoan Lopez, which is subject to a 100 percent tax from MLB (because it put them over their allotted international bonus-pool limit). So other teams say they're actually trying to move payroll, not add to it.
• Blue Jays: If the price tag is still $110 million or even close, you can bet your copy of the Life and Times of Dave Stieb that Shields won't be a Blue Jay. They have only $5 million-$6 million left in the budget, and they've prioritized bullpen shopping over any other item on the shelves. OK, so it would be accurate to say they've kicked around whether they'd be interested if the price tag dropped dramatically. But there's no indication they've even made contact with Shields' agent. So essentially, the only way this guy will wind up in Toronto is if he comes to the Jays and says, "I've always wanted to pitch off the same mound where Juan Guzman once pitched." Or something like that.
• Red Sox: Their fan base would totally sign this man, for whatever it took. But their front office? Uh, not so much. The Red Sox seem to have concluded Shields just isn't a good fit for a park like theirs. And they've seen why with their own eyeballs. In 13 starts at Fenway Park, he's 2-9 with a 5.42 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP.
• Yankees: We'd all concede that you can never count the Yankees out on anything or anybody. But if you've paid attention to their offseason, could it possibly be more obvious that they're steering themselves away from pricey 30-something free agents looking for $100 million paydays? They've been all about getting younger and loading up on bullpen depth. And Shields would contribute to neither. Not to mention that his career ERA in the new Yankee Stadium is 6.35.
• Cubs: As many fond Tropicana Field memories as Joe Maddon may share with Shields, the Cubs have shown pretty much no interest since they signed Lester. They'll go ace shopping again next winter, but that isn't going to help James Shields find a job now.
• Dodgers: While we're on the subject of fond Trop memories, it's a fact Andrew Friedman loves James Shields. But it's also a fact that, other than Lester, the Dodgers haven't chased any free agent this winter who would cost them their No. 1 pick. So there's almost no scenario (for now) where a Shields-Friedman reunion falls in place.
• Giants: He seems like he'd make sense, especially in AT&T Park. But after initially jotting Shields' name on their shopping list, the Giants have made no effort to pursue him for weeks. And that hasn't changed.
• Royals: That other World Series team will forever remain grateful for Shields' contributions to their renaissance the past two years. But they've moved on. Haven't talked about him for weeks.
• Tigers: Team president David Dombrowski shot down those Shields-to-Detroit rumors Monday. And you can trace that reasoning to the $116.55 million the Tigers already have committed to just six players in 2015. The Tigers almost certainly would have had to trade David Price to make financial room for Scherzer. But maybe the best argument for them signing Shields, says one friend of Price, is that it would make Price more interested in sticking around Detroit for the long haul. "If they bring James Shields there," Price's friend said, "it would increase David's level of happiness there by a lot."
• Brewers: It took maybe 30 seconds, once the Brewers had finished off their trade of Gallardo, for people to start connecting them to Shields. And why not? "They signed [Kyle] Lohse. They signed [Matt] Garza," said one NL exec. "They've always liked jumping in there on the last starter remaining." But as Buster Olney reported Tuesday, the reason the Brewers dealt away Gallardo was to open a rotation spot for Jimmy Nelson and to free up cash to add bullpen depth. So cancel their reservation on the James Shields Express, too.
• Astros: Really? The Shields-to-Houston rumors have popped up all month. But the Stros just traded for Dan Straily. And they're on the verge of signing Ryan Vogelsong. So unless they're planning to be the pioneers of the eight-man rotation, they're not signing James Shields.
• Padres: Finally, here's a team that's impossible to dismiss, after a winter in which the Padres have made seven trades involving 30 players, plus some buy-low free-agent shopping (Josh Johnson, Brandon Morrow, Clint Barmes). But they've conspicuously steered away from dabbling in free agents who would force them to lose a No. 1 pick. And if they do add a starter, they're "all over Cole Hamels," said one exec who has talked with them. But while Shields would cost them a pick, he wouldn't require them to further strip-mine their system. So we'd file them under "Possible But Unlikely."
• Cardinals: The rest of the sport has suspected for weeks that the Cardinals were up to something in the starting-pitching market. There's just never been any sign that Shields was that something. They've explored trading for Price or Hamels. They let Scherzer know that if he wanted to pitch in his hometown enough to discount the years and dollars, they'd be cool with that. But none of that effort has led anywhere. And over the weekend, GM John Mozeliak didn't just say the Cardinals were "out of the big-pitcher market." He said "it doesn't make sense" to do (or pay) what they'd have to do (or pay) to reel in a starter in that tier. And even if it did, adding another right-hander to a projected all-right-handed rotation would make less sense.
So that's the rundown. Maybe we've missed somebody. Maybe we've been misled by somebody. But after days of following every apparent lead, we wound up connecting zero dots. And we're not alone.
Across the sport, people continue to ask questions about what this means. Did Shields and his agent just scare off too many bidders by shooting north of $100 million for a 33-year-old starter with nearly 2,000 innings on his odometer? Is that too many innings? Too much age? Could there have been some sort of red flag in his medical file?
Or, as some execs have pointed out, is it as simple as this: That no free agent quite like Shields has hit the market in years -- so no team is quite sure how to value him?
"Who's another 'innings guy' who was a free agent at 33 and had pitched 200 innings as many times as James Shields?" asked one of the executives quoted earlier. "It's pretty much only Mark Buehrle. But he's not the same guy. He's a soft-tossing left-hander."
All right, Shields is definitely no Mark Buehrle clone. So how about we stack him up against Ervin Santana? Check out this comparison, of Santana and Shields' final season before free agency -- Santana in 2013, Shields in 2014, both in Kansas City (see chart on right).
Santana was two years younger. But he also went from one of the top free agents on the market (though with a compensation pick attached) to a guy who wound up having to settle for a one-year deal in March. And like Shields, you could argue that when his agent started talking nine figures early in the winter, a bunch of teams looked elsewhere.
Well, sometimes that happens. Ask Lohse, or Stephen Drew, or Kendrys Morales, how their beautiful cruises went on the free-agent seas. And the next thing they knew, spring training was roaring right at them -- and the right deal was nowhere in sight.
"What I see now is a lot of teams jumping back in," said one of the execs quoted earlier. "But part of the reason is, they're saying, 'We know now he's not getting $110 million, so why not jump back in?' But the problem is, now everyone is bottom-feeding. And when you're someone like him, that's the last thing you want, is a lot of teams bottom-feeding on you in late January."
That may be true. But here's the funniest part of all: Despite all those forces that have pushed these negotiations in the wrong direction, everyone we spoke with still expects Shields to sign any time now -- and to do just fine.
"I can't imagine he gets less than $80 million over four [years]," said one exec. "There's someone out there. You know that. I just have no idea who that is."