The dust has settled, and we have our official trade: James Shields for Erik Johnson and Fernando Tatis Jr. The White Sox owe Shields $5 million for the rest of 2016. If he does not opt out after 2016, which a good finish could easily motivate the 34-year-old to do, he will be owed $10 million per year for 2017 and 2018, and a $2 million buyout in 2019 if they do not pick up his $16 million option, when he will be 37.
You do this deal. If you take nothing away from this article, if you decide the time you would spend reading the rest of this piece would be better utilized to watch Captain America-themed parodies of Carly Rae Jepsen songs, looking at pictures of steaks, or speaking to your family, take away this: this is good value for a fine solution to a real need.
Tatis has a memorable name, a nice overall profile, revered makeup and is a credit to the White Sox’ slowly improving international amateur operation. Matt Cassidy of Future Sox wrote about him positively when he was signed last July, summarizing him as “a well-rounded prospect who can do a bit of everything, but he doesn’t have the big impact tools.” But this is a 17-year-old who was not on any lists for top international signings, nor did he make Future Sox’s top-30 lists for the organization. He is a “prospect” but too far away from any realization of his value for it to even be a question on whether it is worth it to ship him out for a real major league asset.
As has been argued here before, nothing Johnson has showed in any of his auditions over the last two years has provided much hope for him finding a place in a major league rotation. He commands his low-90s fastball well enough to get more whiffs than would be expected at that velocity, but he lacks control and his secondary stuff is not sharp enough to miss bats on a major league level. In all, major league hitters have tuned Johnson up for .276/.359/.489 over his career with no sign of abating. Scott Carroll once said, “starting pitching is about rhythm and tempo,” and maybe a change of scenery and regular opportunities in San Diego will allow Johnson to find himself in a way that shuffling around in between failed big league auditions and the minors does not, but the ostensibly contending Sox cannot offer that to the 26-year-old, and there is no upside to be tapped in having him continue to master Triple-A hitters.
Beyond two guys who cannot really be considered serious factors in the Sox immediate and future plans, they have now brought on Shields for $27 million of commitment over two and roughly two-thirds of a season. Or, if Shields has a strong finish to the season, he simply opts out at the end of the year. It does seem like $21 million might be hard for him to top on an annual basis going into a his age-35 season, but pitching costs are insane, etc.
To some degree, Shields is doomed to disappoint, because Chicago’s strongest vision of him are his dominant seasons where he convincingly masqueraded as a No. 1 starter for the Royals. He’s likely not that guy anymore, as San Diego has not agreed with him (an odd thing to note about any pitcher). His walk rate has nearly doubled since his last year in Kansas City (3.6 BB/9 since joining the Padres) and he has struggled to keep the ball in the yard despite playing in one of the most massive and home run unfriendly parks in the sport. His average velocity is down to roughly 90 mph and his strikeout rate is barely 20 percent, neither of which is unprecedented for his career, but neither will serve as great compensation for decline in other areas.
Shields has Mark Buehrle-like consistency benchmarks in his career. He is riding a streak of nine consecutive seasons with 200 innings or more and 10 victories or more. He is not Mat Latos, looking totally unlike himself after significant injury troubles, but a perennial fringe All-Star gliding into his decline. Or not quite gliding, since his 4.28 ERA is spiked by the Hall of Fame-shelling the Mariners doled out to him in his last time out, and the black mark on his resume got him personally called out by his owner. He had a 3.06 mark before that day, but his advanced metrics suggested his regression was coming.
Without the benefit of watching his entire San Diego career, the PECOTA projection for the rest of his season is soaking up roughly 120 innings at 3.88 ERA, and that sounds fair, especially if we assess Shields to be a declining but steady vet who will be invigorated to play in a division race, work with Don Cooper, and be backed by a good outfield defense. If Carlos Rodon is one version of a No. 3/4 starter–the super-talented but inconsistent youngster whose performance finds the midpoint between All-Star potential and frustrating struggles–Shields is the other, a veteran with a lowered ceiling and abilities who can still soak up tons of innings and decrease the pressure on the bullpen.
Miguel Gonzalez appears to be headed to that bullpen as a result of Shields’ arrival, and while he would probably be my choice to stick in the rotation, his flashes of competence have not been steady enough to qualify this as an injustice. His stuff has a much better chance of playing up in short bursts than Latos, and it’s not like the bullpen couldn’t use someone who generates actual strikeouts. The Sox rotation will now be rolling the dice one time out of five rather than two.
Rare is the trade where the upgrade matches the name value of the players involved, and the twilight days of Shields are not going to vault the Sox into some ‘Triple Aces’ pantheon of great rotations, but he’s a clear upgrade over the twilight days of Latos and Gonzalez. This is a needed improvement that Rick Hahn has again been able to swing without significantly weakening the future of the organization. They probably need a couple more–which Hahn has acknowledged–and with nearly all of their April gains ceded, it will be a fair post-mortem question whether it came too late.
But good work is good work, and the Sox have a better chance of pulling themselves off the mat than they did on Friday.