It was five years today that the Tampa Bay Rays agreed to a 4-year extension with promising right-hander James Shields. The deal carried significant risk as Shields had just one good season in the major leagues under his belt. However, the season was quite a good one as he went 12-8 with a 3.85 ERA (117 ERA+), a 7.7 K/9, a 1.5 BB/9, and a 1.2 HR/9 ( 3.82 FIP) in 31 starts and 215 innings pitched, and if he was able to keep up something resembling that level of performance up, his contract was going to be a steal. He was going to make just 11.25 million dollars over the next four years, not even making more than $3MM until he made $4.25MM in 2011, followed by three option years at the still pretty affordable rates of $7MM, $9MM, and $12MM respectively (although various incentives raised the last two option years to $10.25MM and $13.5MM respectively). The Rays were undeniably taking a chance by giving Shields an extension like that just two years into his major league career, but the potential reward was enormous as he had the chance to be a dependable number two or number three starter for them for years to come while signed to a contract far below his market value. As we saw over the subsequent five years, the contract could not have turned out any better as Shields turned out to be even better than the Rays had hoped, becoming an anchor for the staff as he threw over 200 innings each season and blossoming into an ace-type pitcher in 2011 and 2012, and then when the Rays finally decided to trade Shields, they were able to receive prospects like Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi in return who will be major parts of their future. It hasn’t received as much publicity as other moves like drafting and then extending Evan Longoria, acquiring Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for Delmon Young and spare parts, and acquiring Ben Zobrist in exchange for half-a-season of Aubrey Huff, but it’s impossible not to rank the Shields extension as one of the best moves the Rays have made in the history of their franchise. They signed Shields to the extension and he proceeded to pitch his heart out for them over the next five years, providing veteran leadership on an extremely young starting staff and doing everything in his power to lead the Rays to the postseason and beyond.
Last week, the Texas Rangers agreed to a 5-year, 55 million dollar contract with the pitcher they consider to be their ace, 27 year old left-hander Matt Harrison. But looking at the stats, problems immediately become apparent. The last two seasons, Harrison has been really good for the Rangers, going 32-20 with a 3.34 ERA (134 ERA+), a 5.8 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 (3.92 FIP) in 62 starts, a relief appearance, and 399 innings pitched. He was especially great in 2012, going 18-11 with a 3.29 in 32 starts and 213.1 innings pitched- but his FIP was actually much worse than it had been in 2011, coming in at 4.14. That doesn’t mean that Harrison is a bad pitcher, but he strikes out very few batters, doesn’t force a ton of groundballs (46.7% career rate), and the bottom line with him is that unlike Shields, the deal he’s signing isn’t team friendly. Obviously the situations are very different- Shields was still pre-arbitration when he signed his extension while Harrison was going through arbitration for the second time. Harrison is also coming off a pair of seasons that at least on the surface were much better than Shields’ career to date when he signed his extensions- Shields had struggled in his 2006 MLB debut before managing a 117 ERA+ in his breakout 2007 while Harrison’s ERA+ has been above 130 the last two years. But even if their situations were different, they were very similar pitchers.
Harrison’s FIP the last two seasons was 3.92, Shields’ FIP from 2006 to 2007 was 4.01. Harrison throws a good low-90’s fastball with some sink, a plus low-to-mid 80’s changeup, and a pair of fringe-average secondary pitches in his curveball and cutter. You may notice that Shields’ current arsenal features the same four pitches, only his fastball doesn’t sink as much and his other three pitches, especially his changeup (which is plus-plus) and his cutter (which is solid-average to plus) are significantly better. Obviously back in January of 2008 when he signed the extension, he was not nearly as polished, but his fastball was about his good as Harrison’s, not sinking but missing more bats, his changeup was better even back then, and he didn’t throw his cutter. Harrison was a solid groundball guy while Shields allowed too many home runs, but they were extremely similar pitchers, and Harrison is only one year older than Shields was then. But despite all of that, Harrison is set to receive a detail worth nearly five times the amount of money that Shields received guaranteed.
Why is that so bad? Shields became an incredible pitcher for the Rays, and considering the Rangers don’t have nearly the budgetary restraints that the Rays have, Harrison’s contract will be a big success for the Rangers if he turns into anywhere near the pitcher that Shields became. However, the chances of that happening are not very high. How lucky were the Rays that Shields blossomed from a player whose upside was considered to be an innings-eating number four starter to a legitimate big league number two? How lucky are the Rays that he didn’t get injured? There is a possible that Harrison experiences the same outcomes to his career, but the probability is just as low and the risk is five times as high. Maybe Harrison is really able to take a major step forward and become a pitcher who resembles the “ace” Rangers fans make him out to be, but the risk is significant and there’s a real chance that al the parties involved will be really disappointed when it’s all said and done.