Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Marlins can narrow gap on Nats by adding James Shields

James Shields of the Kansas City Royals pitches against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on Sept. 11, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio.
James Shields of the Kansas City Royals pitches against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on Sept. 11, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio. Getty Images

I’m sure some of you out there would prefer to continue talking about, reading about and hearing about the proper PSI (pounds per square inch) of air pressure in an NFL football, and the apparent national scandal arisen from slight under-inflation by the nefarious New England Patriots.

But enough of that for now.

Baseball is around the bend, in case you hadn’t noticed. Players report for spring training in less than a month, and I’m here today to talk about how the Miami Marlins can pump even more air into the already inflated regard for how good the team might be this season.

James Shields is how.

He is the one ace-caliber free agent starting pitcher still available, and spending to sign him would be the final flourish, the exclamation point on what has been a statement-making winter by the ascending Fish.

Am I predicting the Marlins will do just that?

No.

Despite shocking all of MLB by lavishing that record long-term contract extension on slugger Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins’ projected player payroll of around $65 million continues as the loose pocket change that the Red Sox and Dodgers find under their sofa cushions, relatively speaking.

Adding Shields would blow up the budget plan, and the Marlins by many estimations may be good enough as-is to compete for a playoff spot — allowing owner Jeffrey Loria to clamp the company wallet shut tight as alligator jaws and feel OK that he has done enough for one offseason.

But none of that means the club shouldn’t still go hard after Shields and reel him onto the boat if his health is right and the price is right. Besides, even if that seems highly unlikely, so, once, did the idea that Stanton would sign a 13-year, $325 million deal.

Loria shocked us with that.

Now: Does he have one more uncharacteristic spasm of spending in him?

Shields turned 33 last month and has topped 200 innings the past eight consecutive seasons. That makes him reliable but also high-mileage and at the far side of his prime, which in turn makes him still available and less costly. But this is the same guy who has been 27-17 with a 3.17 ERA and 376 strikeouts over the past two seasons with Kansas City. Those are hardly has-been numbers.

If Miami fancies itself as contending now and no longer building for someday, Shields could be that last missing piece.

It would be a nice (and timely) counterpoint to the NL East-rival Washington Nationals landing ace Max Scherzer earlier this week with a seven-year, $210 million deal. Guesstimates are that Shields’ price tag, though still substantial, might be less than half of that.

Adding Scherzer to an already loaded rotation made the Nationals the betting favorite to win the World Series. Gnats may be tiny nuisances, but Nats have become a giant problem. They threaten to be, to the Marlins, what the Patriots have been for so long to the Dolphins. The nemesis. The roadblock.

Shields would instantly narrow that gap, and also lessen the sting of Miami being without Jose Fernandez until at least June or perhaps July as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.

There is speculation that another ace-level pitcher could also be available as rumors swirl that Washington might be agreeable to trade Stephen Strasburg, now that Scherzer is there. But it’s extremely doubtful the Nats would trade him to the team chasing hardest within the division. The cost to get him also would be steeper.

Which leads us back to Shields. Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill and general manager Dan Jennings both were with the Tampa Bay organization and had a hand in scouting and drafting Shields for the Rays, so the folks running the Marlins know him well.

All that stands in the way is Loria prying open the alligator jaws on that franchise wallet again and deciding that Miami’s offseason isn’t quite complete.

In addition to securing Stanton long-term this winter, the club also acquired starting pitcher Mat Latos from the Reds; acquired leadoff man and base-stealing second baseman Dee Gordon and pitcher Dan Haren from the Dodgers; signed free agent first baseman Michael Morse; and acquired third baseman Martin Prado from the Yankees.

This has elevated the Marlins among the offseason talk of baseball for reasons refreshingly unrelated to fire sales or frugality.

This is one of the reasons I’m writing about the team a month ahead of spring training, in the midst of Heat season and with the Super Bowl looming.

There is excitement, uncommon anticipation, for this Marlins season.

Now we’ll see if the club decides to stand pat with a decent hand or raise stakes and go all-in with James Shields.

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