The Chicago White Sox just became the fourth major league team to acquire James Shields. The first three — the Rays, Royals, and Padres — did so not only hoping to wring some quality innings from his arm, but also as a statement of intent. When you add Shields to your team, you mean business. The Rays, who selected Shields in the 16th round of the 2000 MLB draft, called him up in 2006 and won the pennant two years later. The Royals traded the cream of their farm system for him prior to the 2013 season and won the pennant the next year. Before the 2015 season, the Padres tossed $75 million over four years (with an option for a fifth) in his direction, as new general manager A.J. Preller tried to turn a bottom-feeder into a contender at warp speed.
The Padres weren’t so fortunate. If the door on Preller’s Brewster’s Millions-inspired whirlwind from two winters ago wasn’t already shut after Ian Kennedy, Justin Upton, and Craig Kimbrel left town, trading Shields closes it for good.
So, what does Shields represent now?
He’s not the guy you trade top prospects like Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi to acquire anymore. He’s no longer the front-line starter who threw four shutouts and finished third in Cy Young voting in 2011. He’s lost 2 miles per hour off his fastball since 2014, and last year he posted his first below-average ERA+ since his 2006 rookie season and tied for the most home runs allowed in the league — all while playing his home games in notoriously pitcher-friendly Petco Park.
Despite his decline, the symbolism of acquiring Shields remains the same for Chicago: he’s a statement of intent, the human equivalent of forming an exploratory committee.
At age 34, Shields gives the White Sox stability above all else. For my money, Chris Sale is the best pitcher in the American League, and José Quintana has been almost as good this year. Carlos Rodon, he of the thick ankles, thin mustache, and vertigo-inducing slider, ought to develop into one of the game’s best No. 3 starters. Adding Shields means no longer having to wait for the other shoe to drop on Mat Latos or Miguel González, both of who are trying to prove that their recent struggles are midcareer blips and not end-of-career declines.
Shields has made at least 31 starts and thrown at least 200 innings every year since 2007. Even if he’s just average — or slightly below average — he’s going to eat innings like a college student on a 3 a.m. Waffle House run eats hash browns. With the team two games back of Kansas City in the AL Central, the White Sox won’t miss the playoffs for lack of competent starting pitching.
That’s a significant comfort, and while paying somewhere between $27 million and $31 million through 2018 — plus two players — for peace of mind seems like a lot, it’s worth it. Losing 26-year-old pitcher Erik Johnson and an intriguing prospect in 17-year-old minor league shortstop Fernando Tatís Jr. isn’t too steep a price for Chicago GM Rick Hahn to pay.
If you need a minute to collect yourself: yes, Fernando Tatís Jr. is the son of former big league third baseman Fernando Tatís. Time is humanity’s only unconquerable enemy, and one day death will come for us all.
The White Sox, however, are still very much alive, and the Shields trade shows they believe that. After a somewhat surprisingly hot start landed them in the pennant race, they are doing everything they can to stay there.