In Tuesday’s AL Wild Card Game, six different former Tampa Bay Rays appeared, seven if we count former Rays minor leaguer Jayson Nix. The most notable among them were Kansas City Royals starter James Shields and shutdown reliever Wade Davis. While the Oakland Athletics’ assortment of ex-Rays joined them in a variety of deals, the fact that Shields and Davis were both Royals was no coincidence–as we all know, they came over in exchange for Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and two other prospects. What is funny about Shields and Davis in particular, though, is that they both joined the Royals amid team-friendly extensions they signed while with the Rays, and those extensions are looking very different now.
With its final option exercised this year, James Shields’ total contract wound up being seven years and $38.75 million. Yes, $38.75 million is a lot of money in the real world, but the fact that Shields’ employers paid him just $5.54 million a season the last seven years has been an absolute steal. In that timeframe, he has gone 96-74 with a 3.62 ERA and seven straight 200-inning seasons. The last four years, he has taken an even bigger step forward, going 58-39 with a 3.17 ERA overall and at least 227 innings pitched each year. That is absolutely crazy given the money he is making. We can debate whether Shields’ extension is better than the long-term deals signed by Evan Longoria (the first one) or Ben Zobrist, but no matter what we conclude, the Rays could have never pictured his contract turning out quite this well.
Wade Davis on the other hand, has now completed the guaranteed part of his extension, four years and $10.1 million. Was it worth it? The answer is yes, but we can’t say that with a great deal of confidence. Since signing the deal, he has delivered a mediocre season as a starter, a very good year as a reliever, a horrific season as a starter, and a dominant year as a reliever. It is obvious at this point that he is better in relief, but his overall performance is as inconsistent as you’ll ever see. If we look at Baseball-Reference WAR, he has averaged just 0.7 wins above replacement per season the last four years. But isn’t this all irrelevant because the Royals have found the right role for Davis and have him under team control for the next three years? Ironically enough, his once “team-friendly” extension has muddied the waters in regards to the future of Davis and other relievers with the Royals.
The issue with Wade Davis’ extension is that it was only so great for the Rays because they thought he would remain a starter. Since he is now a reliever, it is a different story. Davis made $4.8 million this year, even more than closer Greg Holland‘s $4.675 million. Davis was probably worth more this season, but how are the Royals possibly going to continue paying them both? Davis’ team option is for $7 million next season, and Holland will get an arbitration raise to a similar number. Davis will only receive a $1 million bump to $8 million in 2016, but are the Royals really going to pay two relievers a combined $14 million in 2015 and $16 million in 2016? Those crazy numbers make it relatively clear that the presence of Davis should push Holland out the door for the Royals.
Before we say that, though, we should mention that Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, and Tim Collins are also arbitration eligible. The latter two are non-tender candidates, but Jason Frasor is also a free agent while Scott Downs‘ $4.25 million option makes no sense to exercise. The Royals had the the ninth-best bullpen ERA in baseball this season, but that came mostly from Davis, Holland, and the likely unsustainable performance of Herrera. They simply don’t have very many good relievers. Essentially, Davis’ contract puts them in a catch-22: either they keep Holland and pay an exorbitant amount to two relievers, or they trade him and face major uncertainty in their bullpen. In addition, this entire conversation is ignoring the fact that Davis could regress or get hurt next season, making this whole situation even worse.
The irony continues because the Royals might be able to afford both Greg Holland and Wade Davis, as poor of an allocation of resources as that might be, because James Shields will leave as a free agent this offseason. We also should be fair and note that rebuilding a bullpen is not so difficult, and the Royals could very well find a strong relief corps next season with or without Holland. The bottom line here, though, is that Davis’ contract is questionable even after his breakthrough season. While Shields’ extension will go down as one of the best deals the Rays ever made, Davis will have to continue pitching out of his mind for his contact to avoid being among the worst.