Many writers have speculated that the Yovani Gallardo trade could put the Brewers in position to land James Shields. Mike Axisa of CBSSports.com notes that the Brewers will have far greater payroll flexibility in the near future, carving a path for a new commitment. Noah broached the conversation on Sunday. With Max Scherzer off the board, rumors now swirl around James Shields' future home.
The Brewers could be a fit, but it's nothing more than speculation. Here are some more reasons why we can speculate as such.
The Brewers' front office prioritizes experience and stability in the starting rotation.
The Brewers have swooped in late in the offseason to bolster their starting five with a veteran arm in two consecutive seasons: Kyle Lohse in 2013, Matt Garza in 2014. In both scenarios, the Brewers could have reasonably entered each season without adding a free agent.
The 5-man rotation in advance of the 2013 season was to be Yovani Gallardo, Marco Estrada, Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers, and Chris Narveson. Fiers' success in 2012 made him a viable option in the back end - sort of how we see him now, I would say - leaving Narveson as the one iffy, but not awful, link. Melvin inked Lohse in late March, and Narveson got the bump.
2014 saw a similar development. This time, the Brewers signed Matt Garza in late January, presumably demoting Tyler Thornburg from the starting 5 - despite an excellent audition for the role in late 2013.
With the Gallardo trade, Jimmy Nelson is now the relatively unproven commodity in the rotation. If the Brewers stand pat and commit to giving him the ball every five days, it would show a relatively significant shift in philosophy. I won't be convinced until it actually happens.
The bullpen could use a swingman, and Jimmy Nelson could fit the bill.
Assuming Tyler Thornburg is healthy and has graduated into a mid-to-high-leverage role, the Brewers' bullpen is exclusively situational role players. Brandon Kintzler in middle relief. Thornburg, Jim Henderson, Jeremy Jeffress, and Will Smith jockeying for late-inning relief. New acquisition Corey Knebel could find himself in this group very early on. Broxton in the 9th inning. The bullpen lacks a spot starter/long reliever.
Long relievers are never the anchor of a roster, but it's something of a necessity. They can feel useless when they are particularly ineffective, even though their value lies mostly in eating innings. However, Nelson is talented and potentially versatile enough to handle multiple innings when it's necessary and contribute in middle to late relief when the rest of the bullpen is taxed.
The Brewers could go in several different directions. Signing a free agent reliever is certainly a possibility, and something we have assumed would happen all offseason. But, if they feel Knebel is the missing piece in the bullpen, perhaps the Brewers see the money saved from the Gallardo deal to re-invest elsewhere.
The Brewers have a good track record acquiring top-of-the-line starting pitchers.
This reason is admittedly intuitive: acquire an elite pitcher, and elite production will typically follow. However, it helps that the Brewers have dodged the exception(s) to the rule in terms of frontline starting pitching since the Jeff Suppan blunder in 2006.
Since then, they have picked up, via trade or free agency, CC Sabathia, Randy Wolf, Zack Greinke, Kyle Lohse, and Matt Garza. The only ire-inducer there might be Randy Wolf, but his first two seasons with the Brewers were relatively effective - even then, his placement in this category is quite suspect.
The Brewers' success with their highly paid pitching assets should not have any bearing on the decision to shell out money for James Shields. But, it's a factor that could play an unconscious role.
Doug Melvin is a filthy liar.
After the Gallardo trade, Doug Melvin claimed the following:
Melvin also made it clear that Gallardo trade is not Step 1. Said he doesn't see pursuing Shields and hasn't heard Zimmermann is available.— Tom (@Haudricourt) January 19, 2015
As we know here at Brew Crew Ball, this can be de-coded as "The deal is done, pending a physical."
The Brewers' "max" offer should fall pretty close to Shields' asking price.
Milwaukee has repeatedly given outgoing high profile free agents an offer in the range of 5 years, $100 million. With the exception of Ryan Braun (5 year, $105 million extension through 2020), the Brewers have never committed to a player for more than $20 million dollars annually. The $20 million/year benchmark seems to be about the highest the Brewers front office is willing to go.
They offered CC Sabathia 5 years for $100 million dollars after he entered free agency in 2008. They offered Prince Fielder about 5 years, $100 million dollars before he entered arbitration. They offered Zack Greinke something slightly in excess of 5 years, $100 million dollars before he departed after the 2012 season.
The difference between Shields and the list of players above is mainly age. Shields' closest comparison according to baseball-reference's similarity score is actually Zack Greinke. Their ability is obviously comparable. However, Shields will be entering his age 33 season in 2015. Greinke was 28 when the Brewers made their 5-year offer.
Bob Nightengale confirms the general unwillingness to extend a Shields deal to 5 years:
James Shields has been seeking a 5 year $125 million contract while teams have been discussing more in the 4 year, $80 million range.— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) January 18, 2015
$20 million per year. Right in the Brewers' wheelhouse.
Allowing for some up bidding, the Brewers may have to exceed their $20 million dollar annual "ceiling" of sorts to land James Shields. However, the Brewers may have a chance - as was the case with Lohse - if the loss of a compensatory pick in the June draft drives the price low enough to keep the Brewers in the conversation. That, and if the Brewers are even willing to pony up the dough (or the draft pick).
I wouldn't hang my hopes on the Brewers signing the best remaining free agent starter on the market. But, the precedent has been set, and there are signs that a connection could be made.