With the deep, powerful offense that they’ve assembled, the Red Sox don’t necessarily need an ace to win this season. However, adding a top flight starter would be a huge advantage to a Red Sox team that already looks like one of the best in baseball. After missing out on Jon Lester, the Red Sox have been tied to a number of options on the free agent and trade market and, though James Shields might not be the best pitcher on either list, he appears to be far and away the most likely to come to Boston.
The first point in his favor is that he is a free agent, meaning that the Red Sox would only need to pay money for him, rather than giving up prospects in a trade. Secondly, while he certainly won’t come cheap, he’ll sign a shorter deal for less money than Max Scherzer, meaning that the Red Sox (who have already spent quite a bit of money this offseason) have the resources to acquire him.
However, the third and most important point in Shields’ favor is a lack of other obvious candidates for him. ESPN insider Jim Bowden recently wrote about the most likely candidates to sign Shields, placing the Red Sox in second place with 5-to-1 odds. However, the Giants (who lead that list with 3-to-1 odds) don’t have as much spending money as the Red Sox (particularly after re-signing both Sergio Romo and Jake Peavy) and also have been hesitant bidding on free agents since the debacle that was the Barry Zito contract. Bowden also lists the Rangers as a contender for Shields, but their hands also may be tied with so much money committed to Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo.
Plus, while Shields isn’t a “true ace,” a term which only really applies to a handful of pitchers nowadays, he would fill a key role at the top of Boston’s rotation. He led the Royals on their improbable World Series run last season as their top starter, going 14-8 with a 3.21 ERA, 7.1 K/9, and stingy 1.7 BB/9 in an impressive 227 innings pitched.
At 33 years old, Shields doesn’t have elite stuff anymore, but he still has shown the ability to limit walks and throw a huge amount of innings (surpassing 200 innings pitched in every season since his rookie year in 2006). Those innings could catch up to Shields as he ages, but if the Red Sox are able to sign him to a four or even five year deal, it’s reasonable to expect that he could head their rotation with success for at least the first half of that contract, which is really all one can hope for with the current free agent trends.
In an ideal situation, the Red Sox would be able to give Shields a shorter deal with a higher average annual value (as they did in signing Hanley Ramirez to a 4 year/$88M contract). That would give the Red Sox an above-average rotation with the potential to be great in addition to their phenomenal offense, putting them clearly in the running for a 2015 World Series title. He may cost a pretty penny but, as the offseason progresses, it becomes ever-clearer that the Red Sox need an ace and Shields is the most likely candidate on the market.