I have a long-running thesis that cross-country teams and pitching staffs are very similar. In both cases, you have 5 starters who are the most important. In both cases, you can get an “ace of the staff” but also have trouble finding a No. 4 and No. 5 guy. In races, as in baseball regular seasons, the fourth and fifth starters can often cost you a shot at winning, since they contribute to 40 percent of your total. The injury rate in running and pitching is pretty similar (both types of athletes get injured all the time). Prospects rise up. Some fail. Some plateau at a certain level for years before inevitably falling to the sands of time.
By that logic, I once had the idea of comparing every single major league pitcher to every runner in New York State and creating a one-to-one scale of pitchers to runners. Unfortunately, there are way too many runners in the state of New York and too few pitchers to ever make this a reality. I consigned myself to making vague contextualized career comparisons on runs as a joke to pass the time.
My high school cross-country coach was engaging in this debate after my final high school track race and determined that I was very much like James Shields. I am still not sure whether this is a backhanded compliment or a backhanded insult. James Shields was a good pitcher, yes, but he is never going to be considered an A-list name. My coach was saying, basically, you were above average, but your real benefit was that you never got hurt and absorbed a ton of innings. Prone to the occasional blow-up, but usually just steady and reliable.
Actually, that describes my running career pretty well. The problem is, in my comparative system, I’m not actually as good as James Shields. Shields was frequently in the top 30 pitchers and I was definitely never a top 30 runner (using the TullyRunners rankings Catholic, PSAL and AIS leagues as contextualizaion). In my best season, I was actually the 72nd best runner. So actually, my best comparison (using pitcher fWAR) is probably Bronson Arroyo. The dropoff in quality between Shields and Arroyo does not bode well for me.
However, once the comparison was made, Shields had to answer. Last season he was the 69th best qualified starter by fWAR on Fangraphs. So, wait, I was James Shields. Or maybe it’s the other way round. Whatever the case, James Shields has declined to Tristan Jung-levels of performance, which is not good. There’s a reason the Padres only got Erik Johnson and Fernando Tatis Jr. for him and had to pay half his salary. Shields isn’t good anymore, but he will also stay healthy for long periods of time.
The question becomes whether I would have traded for Shields. And in the end, I think the answer is no. If I were another cross-country team with bad 4-5 runners and very good 1-2 runners (Sale and Quintana), I would be searching for better options. But getting someone with no career upside whose main strength is durability is definitely not the best choice. A cross-country team would want someone with some upside to vault them into the ranks, a younger runner who could actually have potential. If you are going to be paying a price, you’d like to acquire someone with more future value. The prospects the White Sox gave up are marginal, but the money and the opportunity cost they are paying to have Shields be mediocre is not. It’s a low-cost buy, but it’s rather pointless. If they want a rotation upgrade, they should try to get someone who is significantly better than Miguel Gonzalez rather than probably just marginally better. Maybe add a bullpen piece or another hitter. An aging veteran pitcher doesn’t really help.
And if you want to really improve through the starting rotation long-term, why not try to acquire Drew Pomeranz instead? Maybe go all-in and get a wild-card in Rich Hill. How about Julio Teheran or even Bud Norris?