James Shields Wouldn’t Necessarily Mean Big Games for Cubs in 2015

The obvious question that has to be raised as the Cubs reportedly “kick the tires” on James Shields is “are the Cubs a playoff team?” That question also has an obvious answer: no. One single player in baseball is not capable of lifting a team with as many question marks as the 2015 Cubs to an assured playoff spot no matter the talent level. However, the addition of Shields certainly makes the ’15 team more interesting, as Tommy Cook pointed out.

This is hardly a revolutionary thought. It was foreshadowed by analysts suggesting the Cubs might be two front-of-the-rotation starters away from being competitive in 2015 at the start of the offseason, but how much does James Shields do to change the realistic expectations for this franchise?

More accurately, where are the Cubs now and what does James Shields add in 2015?  Let’s start with the second half of that question because there are fewer variables involved. James Shields has been a durable, innings-eating, very good-to-great pitcher for the past eight seasons.

He is coming off of one of his best campaigns at age 32, and, despite the heavy workload (no one has thrown more innings since 2007) and age, his fastball velocity has actually been trending upwards the past few seasons. Shields has also faced significantly more challenging opposition than the average (particularly where the NL is concerned) starter. Money aside, this would be a no-doubt acquisition of an arm to pair with Jon Lester at the top of the 2015 rotation.

The again, the fit might not be quite that perfect because for all the things that Shields does well, he has a clear wart: he gives up home runs. That problem was mitigated a lot by his move to Kauffman Stadium, which saw his HR/FB% drop under 11.1% for the first time since 2008. Buster Olney noted early in his most recent post on Shields his particular problem with giving up gopher balls to left-center.

That should raise some concerns considering Wrigley Field has either the second- or third-shortest distance to left-center according to this chart. Add in his flyball tendency and the defensive prowess, or lack thereof, of Chris Coghlan and Dexter Fowler and any boost from switching to the NL might be washed out.

Another troubling trend with Shields is his declining strikeout rate. Shields’ K% dipped below 20% for the first time since 2009 last year and this trend is unlikely to reverse much as he ages. His walk rates have also dropped, which is why his production has remained unaffected. Shields is evolving as a pitcher, but there’s a real question as to how long he can continue producing a mid-3’s FIP as the strikeout rate drops.

James Shields is still a very good pitcher and, despite age and the ridiculously poor fit Wrigley and current Cubs outfielders present would represent, is a massive upgrade over the Cubs’ current fifth starter options. All told, he should continue to pitch at about the same level in the immediate future. The drop-off might be a little bit scarier in those age 35 and 36 seasons, but for this exercise we are only concerned about 2015; STEAMER projects Shields to be worth 3.2 wins.

Those wins cannot just be added to the current projected win total for the Cubs though. A number of players adding to that WAR total might not be on the roster, e.g. Welington Castillo, Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson, etc. STEAMER projects Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson to pitch 205 innings and be worth 0.7 WAR in the rotation. That would make Shields a marginal upgrade of 2.5 wins, pushing the Cubs to a tie with the Cardinals for first in the division. So start printing the playoff tickets?

Not so fast. There are plenty of positive indicators (under-performance in 2014 by base runs, positive projections, etc.), but there is just so much risk on this roster. The Cubs will need Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta to build upon their previously unseen levels of production. Kris Bryant is expected to be a star level player right away in these projections. Jorge Soler needs to prove that he can make adjustments, etc.

James Shields would be a huge addition for the 2015 Cubs, and one that makes an interesting season even more so. He provides an answer to an already solid but largely untested pitching staff. As currently constructed, the Cubs have three pitchers in the organization who have thrown 200 or more innings in a single season at the big league level: Lester, Wood and Jackson. Shields’ presence would remove some of that uncertainty, but there are still simply too many places where the floor could fall out on the 2015 roster. That said.

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