DETROIT – A four-year feeling of bubbling confidence came to an end for baseball fans in Detroit on Wednesday when former Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer signed a seven-year, $210 million deal with the Washington Nationals.
Tigers fans have grown used to the organization extending each of its top contributors while also making key additions from the free agent pool.
The Scherzer saga told a different tale.
Despite general manager Dave Dombrowski's insistence that the Tigers were no longer pursuing the former Cy Young winner, belief that the team would find a way to reach a deal lived on.
But now the Tigers' second-best pitcher is gone.
Instead of throwing an unreasonable contract at Scherzer, the Tigers decided to stick to their guns and let Washington pay Scherzer $15 million over the next 14 years, seven of which he'll likely spend far away from the mound in Nationals Park. Detroit has thrown all its money at starting pitchers for more than four years, with no World Series rings to show for it.
It's definitely time for a change, but could the Tigers use one more piece?
Enter, James Shields. The 33-year-old starting pitcher fits into Detroit's future plans much better than Scherzer does, considering the mammoth contracts the Tigers have already given to Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera.
At 33, Shields is likely searching for his final contract in the MLB, which would be a four or five-year deal. With Verlander signed through 2019 and Cabrera through 2023, the Tigers don't need another seven-year deal on the payroll.
Though Scherzer is a more electric strikeout pitcher, Shields fits more perfectly into the current Tigers roster. Scherzer's inability to go deep into games often hurt Detroit thanks to a weak, overmatched bullpen. But Shields, who has thrown 22 complete games in his career, pitched an average of just under 233 innings per season over the last four years while posting a cumulative ERA of 3.17. That means manager Brad Ausmus would use more Shields and less Al Alburquerque, Joakim Soria and Joe Nathan.
Obviously Shields would make the Tigers a better team, but would the contract be worth the price?
Take a look at the current pitching staff in Detroit. David Price, Anibal Sanchez, Shane Greene, Alfredo Simon and Verlander make up the starting rotation while the bullpen will likely include Alburquerque, Tom Gorzelanny, Blaine Hardy, Ian Krol, Bruce Rondon, Soria and Nathan.
If the season started now, the Tigers would feature Price as their ace, followed by Sanchez, Verlander, Greene and Simon. That means Verlander, who posted a 4.54 ERA last season, would match up with No. 3 starters around the league while Sanchez, who battled injuries for much of the last few seasons, would be relied on as the No. 2.
Now, imagine sliding Shields into the rotation as the No. 2 starter. After Price, Shields would give Detroit one of the best pitchers in the AL over the past four years in the second slot, just one year after he led the Kansas City Royals to the World Series as their ace.
The move would bump Sanchez down to No. 3. Though the injury risk would remain, Detroit would feature the 2013 AL ERA leader against opposing third starters, a much more favorable matchup for Sanchez.
Verlander would fall into the No. 4 spot, where he would have the potential to be the best fourth starter in the game if he returns to any semblance of his previous form. On the other hand, if he continues to struggle, he doesn't hurt the Tigers as severely from the No. 4 spot.
In the fifth spot, Greene would begin his Detroit career with a lighter work load and be one of the few No. 5 starters that mustered a sub-four ERA in 2014.
Except for the presence of Price at the top, the Tigers' rotation would improve at each spot with the signing of Shields. But the improvements wouldn't stop there.
A move for Shields would allow the Tigers to move Simon into a bullpen that desperately needs a reliable arm. In two seasons pitching out of the bullpen for the Reds, Simon posted a 2.78 ERA in 148.2 innings. In 2013, he was one of the best relievers in the league, giving the Reds 87.2 innings out of the pen.
When he moved into the starting rotation, Simon revealed the danger of taking valuable relievers out of their roles. In 116.2 pre-All-Star innings, Simon posted a 2.70 ERA and won 12 games. After a scoreless inning in the All-Star game, Simon limped to a 4.52 ERA and 3-7 record in the second half when he simply ran out of gas.
The workload of being a starting pitcher clearly took its toll on Simon in 2014, his first as a full-time starter. If Shields boots Simon out of the rotation, the Tigers can upgrade their troublesome bullpen with perhaps its most valuable piece.
Shields would also add value to the Tigers in a less direct manner: attracting Price. The two former Tampa Bay Rays are best friends, and Price has openly admitted that he'd love to pitch alongside Shields once again. With Scherzer out of the picture, the Tigers will make a major push to keep Price long-term after the 2015 season, and committing to his best friend would be a solid selling point for Detroit.
Bringing Shields to Detroit won't make the splash that a Scherzer resigning could have, but the veteran workhorse would fit perfectly into the team's current roster and improve the entire pitching staff.