At first, a controversial winter trade in 2012 made fans skeptical. But in short order, the deal helped the Kansas City Royals end a 30-season playoff drought and claim their first World Series title.
The year was 2012. The Kansas City Royals had suffered eight straight losing seasons; optimists insisted the young Royals were on the verge of contending and pinned their hopes on Wil Myers, a 22-year old outfielder many envisioned as the next George Brett.
Myers rocked the Royals’ world in 2012. Splitting the season between AA Northwest Arkansas and AAA Omaha, he bashed 37 home runs, drove in 109, had 26 doubles, slashed .314/387/.600, and appeared ready to save the Royals.
But Myers alone wouldn’t be able to rejuvenate the hapless Royals–KC desperately needed starting pitching. The six pitchers who constituted a mediocre 2012 rotation–Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar, Luis Mendoza, Jeremy Guthrie, Will Smith and Jonathan Sanchez–were a combined 39-58. Only Guthrie had a winning record (5-3), Chen’s 11 wins led the staff (but he lost 14), and Chen, Hochevar and Smith all had ERAs over 5.00 (in 12 starts, the fewest among this group, Sanchez posted a 7.76 ERA). The Royals went 72-90 to post their ninth straight losing season.
General Manager Dayton Moore went shopping for pitching and found it in Tampa Bay. But good pitching comes with a price and Moore paid dearly for it: to get established Rays’ starter James Shields and the promising, but not proven, Wade Davis, the Royals had to give up Patrick Leonard, Mike Montgomery, and Jake Odorizzi. And Wil Myers.
Most observers denounced the deal. Critics decried it as the abandonment of the Royals’ future. Disaster, they said, was now inescapable without Myers. That a single deal had derailed the team seemed plausible.
But in making the trade, Moore sought more than just two rotation pieces. Shields, he knew, possessed valuable commodities to complement the 87 games he’d won for the Rays in seven seasons, the 221 innings pitched he’d averaged over the previous six seasons, his six-season streak of starting at least 30 games, and the 11 complete games he’d thrown two seasons before. Shields’ solid work ethic, reputation as a clubhouse leader, thorough pitching knowledge, and ability to effectively mentor young pitchers were all worth having. Moore wanted leadership, dependability, hard work, durability, and wins, and Shields could provide them all.
Davis wasn’t Shields, but he was capable. He spent his first three years in the majors as a Rays’ starter, accumulating a 25-22 record and serviceable ERAs of 3.72, 4.07 and 4.45. He switched to the bullpen in 2012 and went 3-0 in 54 relief appearances, lowered his ERA to 2.43, and struck out 87 in 70.1 innings.
The Royals suddenly contended in 2013, broke their eight-season losing streak, and finished 10 games above .500. Shields contributed significantly to this new success–as expected, he became a recognized and respected mentor and clubhouse presence, started 34 games, led the league in innings pitched, and posted a 13-9 record and 3.15 ERA. His WAR was 4.3.
But Davis floundered. The Royals wanted him to be a starter again but the role didn’t fit. Starting 24 of the 31 games he appeared in, Davis worked to an ugly 5.32 ERA and went 8-11. His struggles didn’t overshadow Shields’ excellent performance but did cast a shadow on the trade that brought the pair to town.
Then came 2014. Kansas City hadn’t appeared in the postseason since winning the World Series in 1985. But as Moore hoped when he traded for them, Shields and Davis helped the Royals end the 30-season drought and were important cogs in the new Royals machine. Shields bettered his 2013 effort with a 14-8 record, again led the league in starts, and gave KC another 200-plus innings season. He continued to be a leader and mentor and received MVP votes. And he was the winning pitcher in the Royals’ ALDS-clinching victory over the Angels.
Davis returned to the bullpen and became the “D” in the Royals’ unbeatable back-of-the-pen “HDH” trio of Kelvin Herrera, Davis, and closer Greg Holland. With HDH, it was a given the Royals would win any game they led after six innings–Herrera and Davis combined to lock down the opposition in the seventh and eighth innings and Holland closed the wins in the ninth. Davis went 9-2 with three saves and posted a remarkable 1.00 ERA in 71 games.
Davis was brilliant in 12 postseason games, earning two wins, surrendering only one run and striking out 20 in 14.1 innings.
Although the Royals didn’t win the World Series, the 2014 performances Shields and Davis turned in laid to rest much of the grumbling surrounding Myers’ departure. Myers, in fact, played his last of two partial years for the Rays and was traded to the Padres after the season.
Shields became a free agent after the Series and, sadly for the many who yearned for his return, signed a four-year, $75 million deal with the Padres, leaving Davis alone to fully vindicate Moore. It was a tougher job than expected–Holland, the superb closer who saved 46 games in 2014 and 47 in 2013, saved 32 games in 2015 before an injury ended his season in September. Suddenly, Davis was the full-time closer.
Davis’ new role was perfect for him and the Royals. He dominated the postseason, pitching in eight games and saving four; he struck out 18 in 10.2 innings and saved four games. Remarkably, he didn’t give up a single postseason run and, in four World series innings, struck out eight and walked none. The performance earned him the 2015 Babe Ruth Award as the postseason’s most valuable player.
Davis had become one of the best relievers in the game: he prefaced his glittering postseason performance with a regular season 8-1 record, astonishing 0.94 ERA, and 17 saves.
Despite a nagging right forearm injury that landed him on the disabled list, Davis had another excellent season in 2016. The Royals didn’t make the playoffs, but Davis saved 27 games and posted a 45-appearance ERA of 1.87.
Unfortunately for Kansas City, Davis was eligible for free agency at the end of 2017; the Royals decided to capitalize before the season on Davis’ trade value and traded him to the Cubs for Jorge Soler.
Myers, the Rays’ primary target in the trade sending Shields and Davis to Kansas City, hasn’t reached the lofty heights so many thought attainable. Due in part to injuries, he’s managed only a .251 career average; although he hit 30 homers in 2017 and 28 in 2016, he averages less than 20 a season.
Shields had one good year after leaving KC for the Padres (13-7 in 2015) but never pitched consistently well again. He ended up with the White Sox, who declined his option at the end of 2017. He didn’t pitch in 2018.
After leaving the Royals, Davis saved 90 games pitching for the Cubs and the Rockies. His ERA has climbed sharply since signing with Colorado; although tempting, it is hard to blame his lofty 2018 and 2019 ERAs of 4.13 and 8.65 entirely on the thin air of Coors Field. Injury contributed to Davis losing his closer role as the 2019 season progressed.
Looking back, Shields and Davis didn’t stay long in Kansas City; Shields is out of baseball and Davis’ best years are probably behind him. No one knows how they, and the Royals, would have fared had they remained Royals.
What is certain, however, is that Shields and Davis gave Kansas City some of the best seasons of their careers. Shields provided 27 wins and invaluable leadership to a young team learning to win; the example he set is talked about in Royals’ circles yet today. Davis saved 47 games for KC and posted mind-numbing ERAs of 1.00, 0.94 and 1.87 in 2014, ’15 and ’16. He was the middle of the unstoppable “HDH” bullpen trio of 2014 and, forced into the closer’s spot by Holland’s late-2015 injury, shut down the opposition at every turn of the postseason and helped lead the Royals to a World Championship.
Their impact was not long-term, but Shields and Davis played instrumental, indispensable and invaluable roles in the two-season magic that brought the playoffs and a World Series title back to Kansas City–an unforgettable two-season event that washed away 30 seasons of disappointment and despair. Their joint contribution to the franchise was priceless and came at a time when the club and city were desperate for a return to baseball glory. The major roles they played in making the Royals Royal again make this trade hard to beat as the best in Royals’ history.