The Miami Marlins and James Shields have danced a dance from far away for the last few months. The Fish were never a front-runner for Shields's services at any point this season, though various supporters of the team's offseason plan have thought that the Marlins could eventually end up with him. The Fish are only considering Shields if the price is right, because the team is trying to stagger its financial commitments and not commit long-term to non-star players. Still, they have monitored the Shields market for the better part of the past month and kept an eye out for any potential opportunities. So far, nothing has settled in, as Shields is still looking for at least a four-year deal, rumored to be worth $70 million.
This is far better than the initially rumored five-year, $110 million offer he had on the table. But Joe Frisaro of MLB.com suggests that the Marlins make a final shot at Shields with just a two-year contract offer.
The likelihood of this working is low as of right now, just because Shields remains a free agent of some interest and teams are available that could also use his services. However, as many teams have already filled up their payrolls, it is possible a high-profile name like Shields slips into Spring Training without a contract. If he approaches that time period without a deal, it is possible he may choose to wait until the 2015 draft is complete in order to nullify the draft pick cost to sign him. Remember, he declined the qualifying offer from the Kansas City Royals and thus any signing team would owe a pick to them.
For the Marlins, that selection would be the 12th in this year's draft. The Marlins don't have the advantage of last season, when their draft pick was first-round protected. However, if the team can convince Loria to jump the club's currently saturated payroll to add Shields, who may make the two-win difference at this stage between the playoffs and staying home, it may be worth using the offer of a guarantee at the Marlins' price over the uncertainty of waiting.
The idea is that the Marlins could offer Shields a two-year deal with a third-year player option that could be worth a total of $54 million or so as an option for a floundering Shields market. If teams are not willing to match that type of contract, he would then have to choose between the guarantee of a shorter deal over taking a one-year contract. Such a one-year deal may even have to occur after the 2015 draft, meaning it will only be worth about half of what Shields might have made otherwise this season. Then he would have to go through this process again in the following offseason, when he will be 34 years old and still trying to pursue a large deal.
Buster Olney of ESPN.com (Insider required and recommended) mentions that Shields may be quickly drying up options as of right now, and a three-year deal with a fourth-year option would have to be his best offer now.
Rival agents are now saying that if Shields has a good three-year offer, perhaps with some kind of vesting option for a fourth year, that would be something that should be seriously considered.
The first team that makes that type of move will get to name their price and set the market. If the Marlins are the ones to pull that off, Shields may be had at a far lower cost than expected just a few months ago. The decrease in years is a clear benefit for any acquiring team, as Shields's age and likely near-future decline will make committing fewer seasons the better gameplan. If the Fish jump the market first, they could be able to secure Shields without a significant fight.
For Miami, they have to weigh the disadvantage of a two- or three-year commitment to Shields and the loss of a draft pick over jumping other teams to the punch to get the best player left available. Jeffrey Loria likes the team as is, but the Marlins have a potential opportunity to snag a potential difference-maker for a borderline team at a better price than initially expected. The club has been smart about staggering its financial commitments around Stanton, but ultimately the team has a short window for contention. Stanton is only here for six more years for sure, and the Fish are likely to get more expensive as arbitration payouts for guys like Jose Fernandez, Marcell Ozuna, and Christian Yelich build up. The Marlins need to make a certain amount of win-now moves, and signing a difference-maker for two seasons like Shields is that type of move.
Can they pull it off with the right price? As Frisaro mentions, the advantage is that if Shields declines, the Marlins are comfortable at their current situation, even if that level may not be playoff-contender status yet. However, as we approach Spring Training, the opportunity to make a two-win leap with Shields gets cheaper and cheaper, and the Marlins may be wise to heed it at a certain point.