The San Diego Padres agreed to terms with James Shields very late on Sunday night, according to Chris Cotillo of SB Nation. Shields’s new contract will be worth between $72 million and $78 million over four years, and the Padres will hold a team option for 2019. The deal completes a wild debut winter for Padres GM A.J. Preller, who acquired Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers and Derek Norris in a flurry of trades back in December. Shields joins a strong rotation in San Diego, one that already included Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy and Tyson Ross. The Padres will be much better in 2015, perhaps even contending for a playoff spot in the top-heavy NL West. It’s hard to imagine an offseason having a much greater impact than this one. And yet, there are chinks in Preller’s armor.

For one thing, the Padres still figure to run out an infield of Will Middlebrooks, Alexi Amarista, Jedd Gyorko and Yonder Alonso on Opening Day. Here’s how that group produced in 2014:

Padres 2015 Infield, 2014

Name Plate Appearances Batting Average On-Base Percentage Slugging Average
Yonder Alonso, 1B 288 .240 .285 .397
Jedd Gyorko, 2B 443 .210 .280 .333
Alexi Amarista, SS 466 .239 .286 .314
Will Middlebrooks, 3B 234 .191 .256 .265

 

There are, of course, caveats. Offense is down everywhere, and San Diego is a poor place to hit in the best of times. Apply any filters you want, though, and those will still be hideous numbers. Given all the defensive tradeoffs Preller made to assemble his very strong offensive outfield and catcher situations, the Padres need much, much better than that from their infielders if they hope to contend. They’ll get regression (up) toward the mean from each player, and each player is young enough to permit at least some hope for genuine development and improvement. Even so, this is a point of concern, starting right now. The Padres are going to run a team-record payroll this season. Shields is the cherry on top of an offseason aimed at making them legitimate rivals to the reigning World Series champions from San Francisco, and to the financial behemoth from Los Angeles. It’s a really nice cherry, but the sundae still doesn’t really stand up to its competition.

I mention this because it seems to be a theme. The 2012-13 Blue Jays were guilty of it. So were the 2013-14 Yankees. Winning the winter with a battery of impressive additions is nice. It sells season tickets, gets people excited and markedly improves most teams. However, too many of the teams in these positions—that is to say, teams who have already made a splash or three over the winter, and have a chance to really step on their opponents’ throats—are stopping a little bit short. It”s not hard to see why they’re doing so. Very often, they’re simply running out of possible moves. Consider these Padres. They made their quartet of big trades after losing out on Pablo Sandoval, to whom they reportedly offered a very competitive contract to become their third baseman. If Sandoval had taken Preller’s money, instead of Ben Cherington’s, the Padres would probably be quite a bit better off. They’d have filled one of their gaping infield holes, and might not have needed to pay the high price they did for the smallish upgrade from, say, Seth Smith to Matt Kemp.

Still, there’s something to be said for planning, and for refusing to be outbid at the critical moment. The Padres are the latest in a series of teams that seem to have taken big strides to address obvious issues, or to have simply taken the biggest possible bite out of the talent pie, but who have not ended their labor with a well-balanced, genuinely winning roster. It’s hard to say what the medium- and long-term costs of an offseason push like this one turn out to be, but they’re surely too high a price to pay not to reach the postseason. The Padres might get there in 2015, but then again, they might not. The chances are certainly no better than 50 percent. That’s an uncomfortable reality, for a team as leveraged as this one now is. The best player they acquired this winter, by no small share, is Justin Upton, who will be a free agent after this season. Andrew Cashner and Ian Kennedy aren’t far from free agency, either. San Diego needs a strong season to justify the outlays they made, and there’s nothing close to a guarantee that they’ll get it.

That’s the truth of the matter, from the global perspective. The flip-side of that argument is this one: James Shields at this price is the bargain of the entire offseason. Over the last eight years, Shields has been one of the best and most consistent starters in baseball. He’s racked up at least 227 innings pitched in each of the last four seasons. He’s gotten less and less vulnerable to home runs, though they’re still a minor vulnerability for him. He’s pounded the strike zone with ever greater frequency, offsetting a slowly declining strikeout rate by posting better walk rates all the time. He’s lost nothing off the fastball, and gained velocity on his curve in 2014.

All pitchers are tremendous health risks, and pitchers heading into their mid-30s with high career innings counts might be even bigger ones than most, but there’s nothing close to a red flag with Shields. He’s proved himself more durable than virtually any other pitcher in baseball over the last several seasons. In fact, he’s been healthy and strong for over a decade, going back even into his minor-league record. He also didn’t get abused at a young age, pitching fewer than 150 innings every year until age 24. If he gets hurt, it will have been as unpredictable as a pitcher injury gets. Shields’s workhorse track record made a nine-figure commitment a reasonable goal for him. The fact that the Padres got him for less than $20 million per year without guaranteeing a fifth season is remarkable.

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