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Marlins being cautious regarding James Shields

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The Miami Marlins and James Shields seem like a good fit, but the Fish are being careful with their tight payroll restrictions and Shields's salary demands.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Marlins really have only one pathway left in this offseason to improve on their roster, and that would be to find a way to acquire one of the two remaining "elite" free agent starting pitchers. On the docket is the potential for a James Shields signing, a possibility that has been rumored for some time. The Marlins and Shields initially were not a great match, but since the start of the offseason, the Fish have traded an extensive amount of their pitching depth and are left depending on Dan Haren's willingness to play in Miami for their fifth starter spot.

In that respect, Shields is now a decent fit for this roster, giving the team another front-line starter to match with Mat Latos and a returning Jose Fernandez. But as Joe Frisaro of MLB.com mentions, the payroll restrictions on the roster make it harder for Miami to commit to Shields.

But at what price? Would fives years, $90 million get the deal done? Perhaps, but that would depend on how it the contract is structured.

The Marlins are in a precarious place when it comes to their payrolls. The projected payroll for 2015 is in the $65 million range. Now, that figure could have some wiggle room based on Dan Haren’s situation. If Haren retires, Miami still gets $10 million from the Dodgers. And if Haren pitches for Miami, L.A. is paying the $10 million.

Haren's situation almost certainly has to be resolved for the Marlins to pursue Shields. Haren is owed $10 million in salary, all paid for by the Los Angeles Dodgers, but if he retires or is dealt, the Marlins still get to keep that money for this year and use it towards a Shields signing. However, the west coast market for Haren has been light on interest, so the Fish may find it hard to get takers on Haren at his salary without throwing some of that Dodgers money into the deal or committing even more prospects from an already-depleted farm system.

Frisaro also mentions the possibility that Shields could get a front-loaded contract to open up future payroll.

The Marlins probably could stretch their budget in 2015, and pay Shields perhaps as much as $20 million. But if the club is on the hook for that figure or more in 2016, it could eat up a majority of the projected 2016 budget. No figure has been revealed for ’16, but it could be in the $80 million range.

Four players are already signed for $33 million in ’16. Giancarlo Stanton will make $9 million, while Martin Prado, Morse and Jarrod Saltalamacchia are each on the hook for $8 million. Prado technically is signed for $11 million in ’15 and ’16, but the Yankees are paying $3 million in each season.

It is interesting to see Miami consider front-loading a contract after years of offering heavily backloaded deals to players and trading them within years of the signing. The Fish are not trying to revisit 2012 again, but signing Shields eats a significant amount of payroll on this roster, especially if the figure for 2017 appears to be $80 million as Frisaro mentions.

The Marlins are expecting prospective arbitration raises for 14 players on their roster in 2016 on top of the $33 million they will owe in guaranteed contracts. Of particular concern includes the likely huge raises for guys like Jose Fernandez and Marcell Ozuna in their first year of arbitration and the expected raises for players like Henderson Alvarez (expected to make $4.5 million this year as it is) and Steve Cishek (likely slated to earn around to $10 million next season). The $47 million between the guaranteed salaries and the team's payroll goal may be all but eaten up by arbitration raises next season.

Shields will likely be a costly investment over the next five years, even if the Marlins bring his salary demands down to a more reasonable five years and $90 million. If he were to sign such a contract, what would be a reasonable structure for the Fish? Given the $20 million figure listed above, let's see what we can come up with (all figures in $million).

Shields, Contract Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5
James Shields 20 16 18 18 18

The Marlins may only need the significant savings from the front-loading of the deal for next season. The Fish are hoping to cash in on a lucrative new media contract in 2017, which could open up their budgets a good deal more by then. They could afford Shields's $18 million annual salary by then, even with the advances in Giancarlo Stanton's salary and the needs of various important arbitration players. Of course, by then Shields may be a shell of the pitcher he is now, but the Marlins are paying for the next two years of his decent production and hoping that springboards them into contention.

The Marlins are on the cusp of contention, but money is always an issue, especially when considering a hefty investment on a 33-year-old starting pitcher. The Fish are right to be cautious about making a potential splash, even if the fit is appropriate.