UPDATE: Padres still favorites for James Shields, but several teams remain “heavily involved”

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UPDATE: Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports that the Padres remain the favorites for Shields and “want him badly,” but several teams remain “heavily involved” in the bidding.

For what it’s worth, the Marlins, Cubs, and Blue Jays are among the other teams who have been linked to the free agent right-hander in recent days.

3:44 p.m. ET: This story isn’t over yet, apparently. According to Scott Miller of Bleacher Report, there is now an “impasse” in talks between the Padres and Shields following a “flurry” of talks over the past several hours. The “ball is in Shields’ court,” per Miller.

2:33 p.m. ET: Joe Frisaro of MLB.com confirms that the Padres are indeed the favorites, “if not a lock already,” to sign Shields.

12:08 p.m. ET: We’re less than two weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting to their respective spring training camps and right-hander James Shields is still sitting out there in free agency. Is this saga finally reaching a conclusion? Well, maybe:

The market for Shields has been a mystery for most of the offseason, but the Padres have emerged as a realistic landing spot in recent days, with Bob Nightengale of USA Today writing on Thursday night that they “have to be considered favorites.” Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler indicated to Dennis Lin of UT-San Diego this week that the team still has wiggle room with their budget. New Padres general manager A.J. Preller has already upgraded the team’s offense in the big way this winter by acquiring Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, and Wil Myers, but adding Shields could vault them to frontrunner status for one of the Wild Card spots in the National League.

Shields once looked like a candidate for a $100 million contract, but it doesn’t appear that he will get it at this stage of the offseason. In fact, no free agent pitcher has ever received a $50 million after February 1. Shields should beat that, but the question is by how much.

Shields, who turned 33 in December, posted a 3.21 ERA (124 ERA+) and 180/44 K/BB ratio in 34 starts with the Royals last season. He has averaged 223 innings over the past eight seasons.

Mark Lerner says Nationals can’t afford both Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg

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The defending champion Washington Nationals may have to replace two star players in third baseman Anthony Rendon and starter Stephen Strasburg as both are free agents. Both are represented by agent Scott Boras and both are expected to command lucrative contracts. As a result, Nationals managing principal owner Mark Lerner said the club can’t afford to bring back both players, Todd Dybas of NBC Sports Washington reports.

Lerner told Donald Dell in an interview, “We really can only afford to have one of those two guys. They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with.”

As Dybas notes, there are myriad reasons why Lerner would say this publicly. If Lerner had instead said, “Yeah, we’re filthy stinking rich, especially coming off of a World Series win. We could afford to get every free agent if we wanted to,” then the Nationals would have no leverage in negotiations. Creating artificial scarcity increases the Nationals’ leverage when negotiating with Boras and his clients. And as Dybas also points out, Lerner’s statement also prepares fans for an unsatisfactory outcome not unlike when the club took itself out of the running to bring back outfielder Bryce Harper earlier this year. This not to say Lerner’s statement is justified; it’s just how things work in the current system.

Lerner also defended the Nationals’ approach to free agency. He said, “They think you’re really back there printing money and it’s whoever goes to the highest bidder. It’s not that way at all. You give these fellas — there’s a negotiation that goes on, but…We’ve been pretty successful in free agency over time. You’re not going to get everybody. Certain players may want to go home, closer to where their home is. You never know the reason why people move on. But, we’ve been very successful. Probably one of the most successful teams in free agency the last 10 years. We’re very proud of our record. But, again, I think people have to realize, it’s not all up to us.”

It is true that the Nationals have been one of the most active teams in free agency in recent years. In a league that has otherwise done the opposite, they deserve some credit for that. But the Nationals are also keenly aware of the competitive balance tax threshold, which teams use as a de facto salary cap. They don’t have to, but they choose to because it’s a convenient structure that allows them to limit expenditures.

At the end of the day, it’s baseball’s financial structure that is rotten. It forces constant misinformation out of everyone’s mouths so as to protect their financial interests and leverage, and incentivizes teams to value profits above all. In a perfect world, MLB team owners wouldn’t need to cry poor every offseason, but we don’t live in such a world.