KC Royals: James Shields was lightning in a bottle

(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

Timing is, as the saying goes, everything, and good timing is what the KC Royals had in the winter of 2012 when they made one of the most controversial, but best, trades in franchise history.

Other than the fact it had some promising young players (Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy and Alex Gordon, just to name a few), the team bore little resemblance to the glory clubs of the past, especially the 1985 World Champions. The Royals hadn’t seen the playoffs since winning that title and were losers in 20 of the 26 seasons since then.

They were, however, showing signs that what then-General Manager Dayton Moore fondly called his “process” might be about to pay off. Vital pieces were missing, though, requiring Moore to take a bold step.

And that’s what he did Dec. 9, 2012, the day he traded Kansas City’s top prospect for a couple of pitchers. To realize the impact of the move, and fan reaction to it, imagine the Royals suddenly trading Bobby Witt Jr., MLB Pipeline’s No. 1 KC prospect, today.

Moore had to know how intense fan and media fallout would be when he packaged Wil Myers, the young phenom KC fans were begging to see in Kauffman Stadium, highly-regarded pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi, and Mike Montgomery and Patrick Leonard to Tampa Bay for veteran starter James Shields, pitcher Wade Davis and a player to be named later (who turned out to be Elliot Johnson).

Shields was Moore’s primary target. The Royals needed a battle-tested addition to their young rotation, a proven leader with the experience to mentor inexperienced colleagues. Shields was known for those traits, and Moore was willing to sacrifice a lot to get him—Myers had just completed a spectacular season between Double-A and Triple-A, slashing .314/.387/.600 with 37 home runs and 109 RBIs.

Shields’ 2012 was also impressive. He’d gone 15-10 with a 3.52 ERA for the Rays; he also led the majors with 11 complete games the season before, and was 87-73, 3.89 in seven Tampa campaigns.

James Shields turned out to be everything the KC Royals wanted and needed.

Moore’s huge gamble paid off. Shields was, as Moore expected him to be, a leader on the field and in the clubhouse, a model competitor for Kansas City’s youngsters to emulate, a teacher of winning ways, and a pretty good addition to the rotation.

Shields, in fact, went 13-9, 3.15 in 2013, leading the starters in ERA and falling just two wins short of Jeremy Guthrie’s team-best 15. (He also tied for the major league lead with 34 starts). What he brought to Kansas City had much to do with the club posting a winning record for the first time since 2003, and finishing only seven games out of first place in the American League Central.

He went 14-8, 3.21 in 2014, helping the Royals to their first World Series appearance since 1985. Those 14 wins tied young Yordano Ventura for the club lead, and he again tied for the big league starts lead with 34.

But James Shields’ days in Kansas City were about to end.

Shields leaves but doesn’t sustain the success he had with the KC Royals.

The Royals lost to San Francisco in that 2014 World Series Shields had so much to do with them reaching, but wasn’t around when they won it all in 2015. His contract was up at the end of 2014 and, after his two excellent seasons in Kansas City, pockets full of money awaited him on the free agent market.

Shields was gone. He signed a four-year, $75 million deal with San Diego, a contract the Royals probably weren’t close to matching.

How did he fare with the Padres? Their investment looked good in his first season there, when he went 13-7 with a 3.91 ERA. But there were signs of trouble—the 33 homers Shields surrendered were more than any other big league pitcher except Colorado’s Kyle Kendrick gave up, and his walk rate (3.6 BB9) was then the worst of his career.

And 2016 was a disaster for Shields. He was 2-7, 4.28 when the Padres managed to trade him in June to the White Sox in a deal that brought Fernando Tatis Jr. to San Diego. Shields was a disappointment in Chicago, though, going a miserable 4-12 with a 6.77 ERA, which gave him an ugly 6-19, 5.85 season.

A 5-7, 5.23 2017 and 7-16, 4.53 2018 followed (those 16 losses tied Baltimore’s Dylan Bundy for the most in the majors), and the White Sox had seen enough. They declined Shields’ 2019 option, bought him out, and allowed him to become a free agent again.

Sadly, Shields hasn’t pitched in the majors, or even the minors, since.

The KC Royals were lucky to get two excellent seasons from James Shields.

When it comes to Shields, Kansas City’s timing was perfect. He gave the Royals 27 wins and everything in the clubhouse they needed, and it all happened just before he started to show some signs of decline, and then actually declined. They club and its players were lucky.

With James Shields, they truly caught lightning in a bottle.

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The Royals obtained James Shields in the nick of time. For that, they were fortunate.