Shields will take charge with Padres

James Shields, the Padres' new ace, has pitched 200 or more innings in each of the past eight seasons. Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

PEORIA, Ariz. -- James Shields is confident enough in his ability that he begins each year with a personal mandate to give his employer a preordained number of innings.

As an added bonus, he's sufficiently invested in the team concept to make a similar pledge on behalf of his rotation mates.

San Diego pitching coach Darren Balsley got a firsthand glimpse of Shields' mindset before the Padres pitchers took the field for their first workout this spring. In Shields' worldview, five x 200 = 1,000, and everything goes from there.

"The first thing he said to me before guys took their physical exams was, 'We are going to give you 200 innings apiece,'" Balsley said. "We have younger guys like Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross who are pretty dominant starters but have limited amounts of starts in the major leagues. It's good for them to see a guy go out there and really show what a workhorse is. It's contagious when guys start competing against each other and want to log innings. That's what we need."

Shields, 33, learned this winter that the free-agent experience can be invigorating and a tad stressful for players at the upper end of the spectrum. After Jon Lester landed a six-year, $155 million contract with the Chicago Cubs in December and Max Scherzer signed with the Washington Nationals for seven years and $210 million in January, Shields waited until Feb. 9 before signing a four-year, $75 million contract with the Padres. The agreement includes a fifth-year club option that could bring the overall value to $91 million.

It's a sweet deal in a couple of respects. Shields gets to stay close to his home in Rancho Santa Fe, where the weather is invariably gorgeous. And he'll spend half his time at Petco Park, where the gaps are spacious and the fences are aligned in a very forgiving way for pitchers.

Recent history shows that Shields has 33 starts and 220 innings in his immediate future. Since 2007, he leads MLB starters with 1,785 2/3 innings -- or 1/3 of an inning more than Seattle's Felix Hernandez in the same span. Detroit's Justin Verlander is five innings behind Shields, and there's a drop-off of more than 100 innings before Dan Haren surfaces in the No. 4 spot.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results for aging pitchers, and the Padres' deliberations about whether to sign Shields inevitably circled back to the same question: Does his track record for reliability make him a good bet for the long haul, or will all that mileage finally catch up to him over the next four years?

"You say, 'OK, eight years with 200 innings pitched,' and you can look at it both ways," said San Diego general manager A.J. Preller. "We debated it when we were talking about James, and obviously we're betting that there are quite a few more years of that left.

"When you study it, there's nothing definitive that says, 'Once you turn 33 and have a certain amount of innings, that's the end of the day.' You look up and see guys -- whether it's Tim Hudson or Mark Buehrle or a lot of guys -- and they're still doing it. We think with James' makeup and athleticism, he's going to be a guy who'll take the ball for us the next four years in San Diego."

The Padres' rotation looked quite promising even before Shields came on the scene. Ross blossomed into an All-Star at age 27, with a 2.81 ERA and 195 strikeouts in as many innings. Cashner's mediocre strikeout totals and swing-and-miss rate don't quite jibe with his upper-90s fastball, but he made enough progress throwing the sinker to log a 2.55 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP in 123 innings last season. Ian Kennedy is four years removed from a 21-win season and a fourth-place finish in the National League Cy Young Award race. And Brandon Morrow, Odrisamer Despaigne and Robbie Erlin are expected to stage a spirited competition for the fifth spot in spring training.

Shields' contribution will include a healthy dose of guidance to help his younger teammates take the next step and graduate from a creditable six innings to a more gratifying seven or eight. Maybe he can pass along a tip to help them with pitch economy, or give them a smarter way to navigate an opposing lineup, or simply remind them to take a deep breath when the bases are loaded and the command just isn't there.

In two seasons with Kansas City, Shields made a mark in a way that transcended his 27-17 record and 3.18 ERA. The year before his arrival, the Royals ranked 28th in the majors with 890 innings from their rotation. In both 2013 and '14, Kansas City's starters contributed 986 2/3 innings, with Shields setting the tone.

"He brought a swagger, a toughness, a confidence and an expectation level to our team and our pitching rotation," said Royals GM Dayton Moore. "When James Shields is on the mound, there's a different level of intensity on the field that night that brings out the best in players. It's not a routine game in July. He expects to win and he expects everybody in the lineup that day to do everything they can to win a baseball game."

In an ESPN.com interview two years ago, Shields professed to have an "old-school soul" in his desire to pitch deep into games and save the bullpen. When Padres manager Bud Black did his reconnaissance work with industry friends during the free-agent courtship process, they shared personal experiences to corroborate that claim.

"The most important thing, obviously, is the performance on the field," Black said. "Any player will tell you that. But he has those qualities that help the team beyond the day he takes the ball. I've heard that from too many people."

If history is any indication, San Diego's starters will have a few trips to the golf course in their future. As the Atlanta Braves and so many other staffs have learned through the years, nothing breeds togetherness like four hours of sun and fresh air interspersed with a few sojourns into the woods in search of lost balls. Shields has a touch of the clubhouse social director to him, and he's intent on doing whatever it takes to get everybody pulling in the right direction.

"I'm going to be here a long time, and I definitely want to get to know these guys," Shields said. "There are things I like to do, not so much to bond, but more or less to have fun and relax and enjoy this game. Sometimes guys hold back how crazy or funny they are -- whatever the case may be. It just allows them to be themselves. That's the most important part."

For all the respect he elicits in baseball circles, Shields still has to lug around the burden of that unsightly 3-6 record and 5.46 ERA in 11 postseason starts. Few people realize that a former minor league teammate who happened to be a huge James Worthy fan was the guy who christened Shields "Big Game James."

Regardless of the nickname's origins, Shields will have to live with the fallout until he puts up some postseason numbers that alter the perception.

The good news: He's with a team that has every intention of playing October baseball as soon as possible. Shields and his new friends in the San Diego rotation are ready to take the ball. What they do with it will help determine precisely how far the Padres go in 2015.