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Are the D-backs talking to the Agent of Shields?

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James Shields would certainly be the top of the rotation arm they need. But can the team afford him, or any other free-agent starting pitcher this season?

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The pitcher

As mentioned by Steven Burt earlier this afternoon. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports wrote a piece in which he stated that the Diamondbacks were "interested" in James Shields. That isn't anything particularly new: Rosenthal also reminds us that the team had previously tried to work out a deal with Tampa and Texas for him, with the Rays getting Justin Upton and the Rangers receivng prospects. That didn't happen, but Shields is now again available, this time on the free-agent market, and even though the Arizona front-office has been almost entirely revamped since then, major-league sources tell Rosenthal that the Diamondbacks like Shields.

It's hardly surprising: is some ways. what's not to like? Over the past four seasons, Shields has gone 58-39 with a 3.17 ERA, which is an ERA+ of 124, and put up a total of 15.3 bWAR, making him the 12th most-productive pitcher in the major-leagues over that time. Also worth noting, he has been a complete and total workhorse, who has literally not missed a single start since making his debut in May 2006. Of course, our view on workhorses may have changed this year, and I share Steven's qualms regarding his age (he will turn 33 next month) while his "Big Game James" reputation is now ironic, given over his last seven post-season starts, he's 1-5 with a 7.34 ERA.

Age also plays into the contract scenario. Old pitchers do not get long deals. As MLBTR notes, the last free-agent pitcher to get a significant contract including his age 37 season, was Derek Loew's four year, $60 million contract with the Braves in January 2009. It didn't work out well for Atlanta, Lowe posting an 85 ERA+ over that time, and was worth just 1.7 bWAR. Four years may be all that's sensible to offer Shields - but that might just mean some franchise offers the extra season to distinguish themselves from the competition. In one of his more sensible philosophies, Towers had a general rule against long-term deals for pitchers. How does Dave Stewart feel?

Still, he would likely be a huge upgrade over anyone the Diamondbacks can currently throw into the 2015 rotation. But it is also worth noting that, because the Kansas City Royals made Shields a qualifying offer, which he turned down, we would lose a draft pick to them. Fortunately, thanks to the success of Tankapalooza 2014, our first-round pick - the #1 overall - is protected, as are those all the teams with the 10 worst records, and so, signing Shields would cost Arizona its second-round choice, currently #32. While still a useful commodity, it's nowhere near as much a negative as for some teams.

The competition

We aren't the only ones looking at Shields: he's likely the top free-agent on this winter's market, so anyone with the cash to spare is likely to throw their hat into the ring. Who else might the Diamondbacks be competing against? The Cubs are probably high on any list of rivals, being open about their desire to add one or most starting pitchers, and Shields would be a fit, not least because Shields' former manager in Tampa, Joe Madden, is now in charge at Wrigley Field. They also have a protected first-round pick, and with very little salary committed to 2015 (only $36 million), the wallets on the South Side of Chicago can open wide.

Surprisingly, Miami are another team that might be interested, now they are shifting into "win now" mode, and have Giancarlo Stanton locked into banging homers off their outfield Rube Goldberg device for the next decade. Jim Bowden of ESPN writes, "The Marlins are committed to adding another top starting pitcher and are said to be already involved in negotiations" with Shields. The Red Sox are another team that is looking to upgrade their pitching, not least because they have lost one of the other top free-agent pitchers, in Jon Lester. However, they appear to be against a five-year deal, offering the younger Lester only four seasons.

The obvious show-stopper money.

It's no secret that the Diamondbacks appear to be reining in their spending, after the franchise-day high budget of Opening Day, approaching $113 million, imploded into the lowest win total for Arizona in a decade. The only specific figure to come out of the front office since the season ended, was the $90m "makes sense" quote from Derrick Hall. At that time, even before adding Jeremy Hellickson, who might make $4m, the team was already very close to that figure. But La Russa has said previously that the payroll could range anywhere from $80 to $110 million. With Shields conceivably getting something close to a $20m AAV, could Arizona afford it?

We have been here before: it's worth reminding ourselves that the team did go all-in to try and secure Masahiro Tanaka, before "settling" for the presumably significantly cheaper option of Bronson Arroyo. That's in part because the team really only has to find a way to bridge this season, with the near-certainty that the firehose of income which is a new TV deal will be turned on in time for the 2016 campaign. This could conceivably result in an additional $50 million per year, going forward from there, perhaps suggesting there may be some heavy back-end weighting to any proposal made to Shields.

The other possibility is freeing up salary, by dealing away some of the larger contracts currently on the books. The most obvious, in the sense of cost and tradeability, is Miguel Montero. He's due $40 million over the next three years, but with Russell Martin off the market following his deal in Toronto, a) Montero is likely a much better option than any of the remaining free agents, and b) that contract seems like a virtual steal beside the five-year, $82 million one signed by the Blue Jays. Dealing him would free up $12 million from the 2015 budget. Perhaps we could then deal Aaron Hill or Trevor Cahill and take on half the $12 million each are also owed, freeing another $6m.

Conclusion

A rotation of Shields, Hellickson, Wade Miley, Josh Collmenter and Trevor Cahill, with Patrick Corbin and Bronson Arroyo waiting in the wings to return at some point in the season, would certainly inspire a good deal more confidence than the pitching staff which finished out 2014, going 16-37 over the last two months. But does Arizona have whatit takes to put together a compelling offer in terms of years, money and other aspects? Or is the risk of potentially acquiring an aging, expensive albatross, just too much? I'd be inclined to make a reasonable offer - say, four years/$80m,  and if someone wants to overpay or offer a fifth year, good luck to them.