Are the Boston Red Sox really better off with a rumored exchange that would send Pablo Sandoval to the San Diego Padres for James Shields?
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, or so the saying goes. Sometimes a struggling player is shipped out in hopes that they will flourish with a change in scenery.
Other times a team will dump an albatross contract in exchange for another team’s problem. That’s essentially what is occurring with a rumored deal that would see the Boston Red Sox ship third baseman Pablo Sandoval to the San Diego Padres in exchange for right-handed pitcher James Shields.
Boston’s intentions for dangling Sandoval on the trade market are clear. The veteran third baseman showed up to camp out of shape and was outplayed by Travis Shaw, who stole his starting spot. That leaves Sandoval as a very expensive bench ornament, one that has the potential to become a clubhouse distraction if his attitude sours with this demotion. Sandoval may be saying all the right things about working hard to earn his playing time, but we’ll see how long that lasts once the games start to count and the realization sinks in that relegating him to the bench wasn’t merely an early April Fools Day joke.
Washing their hands of Sandoval sounds great, but is it worth taking back Shields? The Red Sox made little effort to pursue the veteran starter when he was a free agent prior to last season, despite a glaring need for starting pitching. Then they passed on the chance to scoop him up last summer after he cleared waivers, with the Padres practically looking to give him away. If Boston were to consider this potential deal it would be more about moving Sandoval than any desire to acquire Shields.
One MLB scout that spoke with Tom Krasovic of the San Diego Union-Tribune neatly summed up the pros and cons of this trade rumor.
"“James Shields is not good in Fenway Park in his career. Some people think he’s a National League pitcher at this point in his career. But it’s one fewer year (on his contract) than Sandoval. I think Sandoval would be better off outside of Boston. I think he’s been eaten whole there. That trade actually would make some sense.”"
It makes sense only in terms of the Red Sox becoming desperate to find Sandoval a new home, yet they know that no team will touch him unless they can dump another bad contract on Boston in return.
Make no mistake, Shields is a bad contract and an even worse fit for the Red Sox. While he has plenty of experience working in the AL East from his seven years with the Tampa Bay Rays, that came while calling home to a pitcher-friendly park. His fly ball tendencies are a hazard pitching in Fenway, where he owns a 5.42 ERA over 13 career starts.
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Optimists will point to the nine straight seasons that Shields has logged 200+ innings as a sign of consistency and durability, which Red Sox fans that have watched Clay Buchholz‘s career may find appealing. He can also pile up strikeouts, having recorded over 200 K’s three times in his career, which dampens the concerns of how he would profile in a hitter’s park.
But then you realize that his career-high 9.6 K/9 rate last season was offset by a career-worst 3.9 BB/9. Despite playing in arguably the most pitcher-friendly stadium for a fly ball pitcher last year with the Padres, Shield still managed to lead the league with 33 home runs allowed for a 1.5 HR/9 rate that equaled the worst mark of his career.
There is also the issue of where Shields would fit in this rotation. Surely he would push Steven Wright back to the bullpen to claim the No. 5 spot in the rotation, but what happens when Eduardo Rodriguez comes back around the end of the month? Are they going to kick out Joe Kelly, who finished last season strong and was the team’s best starter this spring? Rick Porcello isn’t going anywhere with his mammoth contract and they aren’t putting Shields in the bullpen, where his most desirable trait as an innings eating workhorse would go to waste.
Shields may have had one of the worst seasons of his career last year, but Sandoval may have been the worst player in baseball. FanGraphs valued him at -2.0 WAR, which was the lowest in the majors. His value may be lower, but at least the Red Sox can hide him on the bench behind Shaw, picking their spots on where to use him in favorable match-ups. He’ll never live up to his contract, but at least he wouldn’t be hurting the team as much as Shields would getting lit up at the back end of the rotation while a more deserving pitcher gets relegated to the bullpen or Pawtucket.
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It all comes down to the contracts. Both players have already been labeled a bust, but there is some financial incentive for Boston to make this swap. Shields is owed a total of $63 million over the next three years, with a team option in 2019 that the Red Sox could buy out for a mere $2 million. He also has the opportunity to opt-out of his contract after the 2016 season, which is a small shred of hope Boston could cling to if Shields desperately wanted out after one year.
Meanwhile, Sandoval is owed more than $72 million over the next four seasons, with a pricier $5 million buyout on his 2020 option. By trading for Shields the Red Sox would not only be seeing his albatross contract come off their books at least one year earlier than Sandoval’s would, they also would save about $12 million over the long run.
As enticing as it is to think about how the Red Sox could use those financial savings, adding Shields to the rotation further hamstring’s the team’s ability to trade for a legitimate No. 2 starter this summer. Shields clearly is not that guy.
If the Red Sox find themselves out of the race by the trade deadline then perhaps this is an idea they can revisit in July, but they enter the season with the expectation that they will contend. As much as fans would like to show Sandoval the exit out of town, letting him sulk on the bench doesn’t hurt quite as much as the damage Shields could do to the rotation.
At least for now, the Red Sox need to let this potential trade stay a rumor.