Padres Editorial: James Shields and His Opt-Out Year

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Mandatory Credit: UT San Diego
Mandatory Credit: UT San Diego

The feeling in San Diego is a lot different heading into 2015 than it was heading into 2016. The excitement has dissipated for most fans. For some, antipathy has crept back in.

Last year the Padres were supposed to be successful. After all the movement during the offseason, the team was supposed to finally get over the 70-something win hump and make a triumphant return to the playoffs. Obviously in hindsight that was a misguided goal from the start.

The actual results for 2015 were a far cry from the expectations going into the season. While the Padres were going for a playoff spot, they ended up at only 74 wins, three wins worse than the previous season before all the moves. The results were nowhere near the expectations in 2015.

No player better represents the gulf between expectations and results better than James Shields.

Following the offseason flurry of moves, A.J. Preller inked James Shields to a four-year, $75 million deal just weeks before Spring Training games were set to begin. The expectation was for James Shields to be the Padres ace, and lead the team back into the playoffs. As became a common theme for the 2015 Padres, the results were nowhere near what the initial expectations were for Shields.

Now just one year later, Shields is coming off of what was probably his worst season since 2010. Shields did finish the season strong with an ERA just below four (at 3.91), but his fWAR (1.1) output was the lowest it had been at any point in his career. For Shields, the long ball became a huge problem, as he gave up 33 home runs, which was the second most in his entire career. Going into his age-34 season, and coming off what was statistically one of the worst years of his career, Shields is looking for a rebound.

Credit: UT San Diego
Credit: UT San Diego

While spring training has only begun, Shields has already faced a small setback. Last week, new manager Andy Green officially named Tyson Ross as the opening day starter. While Shields went on the record saying he is fine with the decision, that kind of move has to be at least a little bit of a knock on his confidence. Obviously Ross was the better pitcher in 2015 by any measure, but Shields was still brought in to be the team’s ace, a role he has now relinquished.

So going into 2016, what’s next for James Shields? Realistically, 2016 may be the most important year of Shields entire baseball career.

One year removed from signing that four-year, $75 million deal, Shields still has three years and $63 million on that deal, as well as an option for the 2019 season. More importantly than any of those figures is the opt-out Shields may exercise after the 2016 season if he so chooses. Based on his 2015 performance, and his ever-increasing age, it appears somewhat unlikely that Shields can get a better deal on the free agent market next offseason. Even so, with Stephen Strasburg being the only real free agent pitcher of note on the market next year, maybe Shields can get a better deal.

At this point, I don’t think anyone knows what to expect of James Shields this year. I don’t know if even James Shields knows what to expect from himself this year. Regardless of that, 2016 is going to be a huge year for Shields one way or another. Either he rebounds and has another great season and opts out of his deal, or he maintains his sub-par performance and remains on the Padres for the remainder of his contract. Despite coming off a poor season and being 34 years old, Shields is still in a pretty good position for 2016.

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