After consecutive disappointing seasons, James Shields is in a position to make a tremendous impact on the 2018 White Sox.
Expectations for Chicago White Sox starting pitcher James Shields in 2018 are nothing compared to his days as an emerging star in Tampa Bay or his two solid years in Kansas City. Even in comparison to his arrival in San Diego during a whirlwind 2014-15 offseason, this year’s expectations feel almost nonexistent. Despite an extremely disappointing run over the last season and two-thirds, however, Shields plays an important role for this year’s White Sox.
Shields should feel no pressure to “win” the 2016 trade that brought him to the Southside. Fernando Tatis, Jr., the prospect sent to San Diego in exchange for Shields, is ranked the eighth-best prospect in all of baseball entering the 2018 season, according to MLB Pipeline. There’s a real chance Tatis makes his MLB debut later this season as the Padres get a look at what the future has in store. Shields is 36 years old and at the end of a long career.
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The past few seasons have not been good for him, as evidenced by his 5.99 ERA since joining the White Sox. Expecting him to justify his acquisition via statistics is an exercise in futility. Still, Shields can prove to be a valuable veteran in 2018.
Shields does not need to be an ace to effectively contribute this year.
His value won’t come from a dominant ERA, strikeout rate, or K/BB ratio. Given Shields’s metrics over the last two years, the bottom line results likely won’t be any better. Shields has seen his ground ball percentage hover right at or just below 40 percent the last two years, down from his career 44 percent. His home run per fly ball rate since the start of the 2015 season is over 17 percent, which is up from his relatively high career 12.6 percent. Welington Castillo has not been considered even an average pitch-framer throughout most of his career, so Shields will have to get the ball in the zone if he wants any called strikes. The battery combination paints a bleak picture.
Add those numbers to Guaranteed Rate Field’s small outfield dimensions, short walls, and Chicago’s hot summers, and Shields will likely have a terribly difficult time keeping the ball in the park. However, the White Sox don’t need him to shut down opposing teams in 2018. The White Sox need someone to eat innings while the next wave inches ever closer to MLB-readiness. Shields should feel little weight on his shoulders to go out and win start after start, as he does not need to be the All-Star version of himself. He merely needs to compete while the organization begins to call up the young studs.
Top pitching prospects Michael Kopech, Alec Hansen, Dylan Cease, and Dane Dunning need time to develop and ready their arms for the wear and tear of a 162 game season. Hurlers like Carlos Rodon and Carson Fulmer need time to heal and adjust, respectively. A significant part of the Sox bullpen is unproven, and starters pitching six-plus innings will take a great deal of pressure off as they gain valuable experience in the majors. It’s reasonable to expect Shields to alleviate some of that pressure, but he must do so without taking on too much responsibility himself.
If he focuses on eating up innings and mentoring the youngsters, Shields can keep excess pressure off himself and the new arrivals.
The Sox need Shields to keep games close and, if at all possible, win ten or so games. He has been a workhorse his entire career, so he should start enough games to have a chance at double-digit wins. Plus, with a solid track record as a veteran, he should become well-respected in a clubhouse full of kids.
Rick Renteria already created a revamped team culture, the cavalry of youth is arriving, and the monster free agent class of 2018 is looming. Shields needs to stay healthy, find some form of that devastating changeup again, and show the up-and-comers how to battle on the mound at the major league level. If he can do that, it will be a successful season for the White Sox and for Shields.
If he manages to push his groundball rate up, drive his fly ball rate down, and keep his ERA under four and a half, he might even find a contender looking to bring in a swingman down the stretch. The Sox would need to eat a large chunk of his salary move him, however, so he’s likely here to stay. In the 2018 season, Shields shouldn’t feel any pressure to put the team on his shoulders, which might allow him the freedom he needs to find some success.