Veteran right-hander James Shields had a rough beginning with the White Sox, but over his past three starts has looked like the Shields of old. White Sox will need Shields to remain consistent in order to remain in contention for postseason.
When the White Sox announced they had dealt for James Shields on June 5th, the reception was mixed. The White Sox sent Erik Johnson and 17-year-old minor leaguer Fernando Tatis Jr. to the San Diego Padres in return for a starting pitcher with a 2-7 record and a 4.28 ERA, a move that would have made more sense two or three years ago. While it was undeniable that Johnson had struggled with the White Sox, it was still an interesting move to trade for a pitcher that was not much better – at least statistically.
Shields had several great years with the Tampa Bay Rays, including (but not limited to) an incredible playoff run in 2008 and a 2011 campaign where he went 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA and finished third in Cy Young voting. While in Tampa Bay, Shields earned the moniker “Big Game James” after repeatedly displaying his ability to perform in clutch situations when the Rays really needed it.
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A deal in December of 2012 sent Shields, Elliot Johnson, and Wade Davis to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Jake Odorizzi, Patrick Leonard, Mike Montgomery, and Wil Myers. Shields and Davis played pivotal roles in the Royals’ 2014 playoff run where they eventually lost the World Series to the San Francisco Giants in seven games. Shields departed from the Royals after the 2014 season and signed a four-year, $75 million deal with the San Diego Padres. Shields put up very Shields-like numbers in his first year with the Padres, touting a 13-7 record and a 3.81 ERA. Shields’ 2-7 start to the 2016 season prompted the Padres to look for a suitor for the right-hander and on June 5th, he landed with the White Sox.
White Sox fans on Twitter and reddit took several stances on the trade with most of them coming down to the conclusion that the trade was a wash either way. The optimistic few – myself included – saw Shields as a very high reward should things turn around. However, Shields’ first three starts in a White Sox uniform were difficult to watch. The native of San Diego allowed seven earned runs in two innings in his first start against the Washington Nationals. In his next start, he gave up six earned runs in five innings against the Detroit Tigers. In his third start, Shields allowed eight earned runs in one and two-thirds innings against the Cleveland Indians.
As Shields took the mound against the Boston Red Sox on June 23rd my optimism had waned almost completely, and my expectations were low for his outing against a pretty good Boston offense. James went on to throw five innings of three-run, five-hit baseball to keep the White Sox in the game. (The White Sox went on to lose that game 8-7 in ten innings.) In his next start Shields went six and two-thirds innings, allowing just one run to the Minnesota Twins. Then, of course, on Independence Day, Shields held the the New York Yankees to two earned runs on five hits in six innings.
One of the things I noticed in Shields over his first three starts was his lack of command of the strike zone. Pitches he once threw for strikes with regularity could hardly find the plate. While he did walk three batters in his start against the Yankees, there were several times where you could tell he was starting to regain some confidence in his pitches. Maintaining that confidence over his next few starts will be crucial to finding out whether this was a dud of a trade or a steal of a deal.
Shields has the potential to be a third ace-caliber pitcher in a rotation that already features Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. Shields has knowledge of the American League and enough playoff experience to be a valuable piece in the second half should the White Sox continue their push towards either a Wild Card spot or the division crown.
Who knows what pitching coach Don Cooper said to “Big Game” James to lure a string of quality starts out of a pitcher who had a 21.81 ERA over his first nine innings pitched for Chicago. If Shields can keep the White Sox in the game for six or seven innings, then this trade will turn out to be one of the best the White Sox have made in recent history. If not it will be the beginning of a journeyman fate for the once-dominant Shields.
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