Padres righty off to great start, with Scherzer sharp and Lester looking for form
By Mike Bauman
ATLANTA -- The early returns are in from the offseason free-agent-pitcher shopping spree. To date, the best bargain has been struck by the San Diego Padres.
Of course, it's early. We're talking about pitchers with multiyear deals. These arguments could go on for years.
But there were three pitchers in the offseason of 2014-15 who were at the head of their free-agent class, and they were paid for that status. To briefly review: Max Scherzer got seven years and $210 million from the Washington Nationals. Jon Lester got six years and $155 million from the Chicago Cubs. James Shields got four years and $75 million from the Padres.
Comparisons, while early, are reasonable based on similarity of workload. Tuesday night, Shields made his 13th start of the season, while Scherzer and Lester each made their 12th.
Lester gave up five earned runs in 4 1/3 innings in a loss to Detroit, leaving his record at 4-5 with an ERA of 4.25. His entire career says he's considerably better than this. But in this case, the Cubs are not currently in the running for best offseason pitching purchase.
Scherzer gave up four runs in 6 2/3 innings in a loss to the Yankees, leaving him with a 6-5 record and a 2.13 ERA. He has frequently pitched brilliantly this season. Sabermetrically, Scherzer is at the top of this elite trio.
Shields had a completely uncharacteristic outing Tuesday night. After five typically efficient shutout innings, he gave up a 5-0 lead in a five-run sixth inning by the Braves. Shields was charged with four earned runs over 5 1/3 innings. He was not involved in the decision, so his record remained at 7-0, but his ERA climbed to 3.79.
There was nothing wrong with Shields' stuff or his velocity or the action of his pitches, San Diego manager Bud Black said. This was more simply a matter of "the Braves found holes."
"I didn't get the job done, bottom line," Shields said. "Hitters find holes, they're going to get hits, that's part of the game. For the most part, I was making my pitches all night long and keeping them off balance the best I could. But we're up, 5-0, going into that inning, I need to do a better job of bearing down out there."
This start aside, Shields has been a model of consistency. He has produced a quality start in 10 of his 13 outings. Scherzer is 9-for-12 in that category. The Nats are 7-5 in games that Scherzer starts. The Padres are 9-4 in games started by Shields.
If we're voting for the National League Cy Young Award here, then Scherzer wins. He may well win the actual NL Cy Young Award voting later. But if we're looking at best value for the money, then San Diego wins.
Another element that the Padres get with Shields is intangible. It's leadership. He has already been praised for that in previous stays with Tampa Bay and Kansas City. In those places, Shields came onto losing clubs and became a vocal leader, a focal point, an integral part of turning those clubs into winners -- winners that eventually reached the World Series.
"With James, not only has he done it on the mound through performance, what I like and the coaching staff likes and I think his teammates like is his competitive spirit that he brings to his games, and also the competitiveness that he brings four days between starts, the energy," Black said.
"He's all about the team, what we're trying to accomplish as a team, I think there's just a lot of good talk from James about what this is all about, winning baseball games, trying to get to the top of our division, trying to take down the Dodgers and the Giants.
"So there are a lot of good things from the leadership component that he brings, and where he is in his career. That's the thing that I like. I mean, obviously, we all like the 7-0 [record], and the numbers he puts up on the pitching side, which, arguably, are the most important. But he brings that other element, too, to our group."
For the rest of us, a $75 million expenditure is unimaginable. But in baseball's contemporary pitching market, where inflationary trends are the prevailing direction, this $75 million contract is looking like a relatively good deal. It's a lot less than $210 million, and the pitcher in question has been consistently very good.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.