An announcement preceded the entrance of James Shields into the 2014 season.
“Just so you know,” Jeremy Guthrie said to the group of Royals veterans clustered in a far corner of the clubhouse. “Shields is on his way in.”
It was Friday morning, about 10 minutes shy of 9 o’clock, as pitchers and catchers reported to camp. Smiles cracked across faces. A dozen sets of eyes focused on the hallway leading into the room. Shields strode into the scene like a pied piper, albeit one with a Royals bag slung over his shoulder and a T-shirt from Urban Outfitters covering his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame.
His arrival before the 2013 season trumpeted a new era in Royals baseball, and coincided with their best season since 1989. His arrival on Friday merited a more collegial reaction. A stream of teammates flowed to his locker. One member of the mob was manager Ned Yost.
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“What’s up, homes?” Yost asked.
“What’s going on?” Shields said.
It is a reasonable question for Shields, who now enters a campaign brimming with both historical and financial consequence. If he leads the Royals into the playoffs, a realm of competition they haven’t reached since 1985, he’ll etch his name into franchise lore.
He’ll also burnish his profile for free agency, a facet of the baseball economy he has never experienced, where a potential nine-figure payday awaits. On Opening Day in Detroit, he could duel with Max Scherzer, the reigning American League Cy Young award winner and Shields’ competition for the top of the impending free-agent heap.
At 32, Shields possesses a sparkling resume. Only Justin Verlander has topped Shields’ output of 705 innings since 2011. During those three seasons, Shields ranked 11th among pitchers in FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement.
He is a model of consistency, a metronome of understated excellence. These qualities made the Royals zealous for his services last winter. They also may cause the team to lose him to a higher bidder this winter.
A high-priced pursuit of Shields would appear to contradict the organization’s philosophy. During a conversation this past week, general manager Dayton Moore repeatedly invoked one of his core tenets for the procurement of veteran talent.
“The only way we can win the negotiations consistently is by using talent in our minor-league system,” Moore said. “We’re not going to be able to compete on the free-agent market.”
The price in minor-league talent was steep — the Royals shipped to Tampa Bay eventual American League Rookie of the Year Wil Myers and three other players for two seasons of Shields.
How much will he cost now? Details on his desires are scant: Moore declined to say whether he intends to negotiate with Shields this spring. Multiple messages left for Shields’ agent, Page Odle, went unreturned. Once the season begins, Shields has vowed he will not discuss his contract status. For now, he appears unperturbed. “I don’t know exactly how to feel about it,” he said.
Shields has denied a report his representatives told the Royals he seeks a contract akin to Zack Greinke’s six-year, $147 million pact with the Dodgers. But rival executives believe a comparable deal is reasonable.
“I’d definitely say he’s a $20 million (per season) guy,” one American League executive said. “No question.”
The executive paused to consider what that reality meant for Shields’ future in Kansas City.
“If they keep him, it’ll be a bit of a revelation over there.”
By 9:10 a.m. Friday, the small crowd of reporters around Shields’ locker had thinned. He was searching for a metaphorical piece of wood upon which to knock. He has never been on the major-league disabled list. He credited his consistent readiness to his routine, his nutrition, his dedication to his craft. “And,” he said, “not to mention luck.”
His durability is a gift in the present and a possible dilemma for the future. The one consistent fear about Shields’ free-agent potential is the mileage he has accrued. Since 2007, his first full season in Tampa Bay, he has averaged 33 starts and 223 innings per season.
He turns 33 next December, and there were subtle signs of slippage in 2013. His strikeout rate dipped a tad. His walk rate inched upward. But he retained his fastball velocity at 92 mph, and his overall production was sterling.
“There are always a few guys who just seem to be able to do it,” another American League executive said. “And that makes them hugely valuable.”
An American League scout suggested Shields’ command of his arsenal separated him from other hard-throwers. When Shields’ velocity wanes, the scout said, he can still befuddle hitters with his blend of changeups, curves and cutters.
“I can’t give you a reason why at least one club wouldn’t (offer a $100 million contract),” one National League scout said. “As long as he stays healthy and has a season up to his standards.”
Just past 11 a.m. on Friday, wearing a pair of dark shades and a white bandana, Shields emerged from the clubhouse for his first workout here in 2014. He walked to the field in lockstep with pitching coach Dave Eiland.
Eiland admired Shields from afar while he coached the Yankees pitchers from 2008 to 2010. Eiland learned more as a special assistant to Rays general manager Andrew Friedman in 2011. Eiland experienced the complete picture last season as he went 13-9 with a 3.15 ERA, and marveled at Shields’ effect on his teammates. Eiland called Shields “one of the best I’ve ever seen” at policing the clubhouse and exuding leadership.
“If we don’t trade Wil Myers for James Shields, we don’t win 86 games last year,” Eiland said. “And none of us may be standing here right now.”
Eiland was laughing, the sort of reaction that might exasperate a fanbase still smarting over Myers’ departure. Moore has spoken often about the pain this trade caused. The front office hated to lose a player like Myers, one they developed and nurtured. But the organization has decided trades are the best route toward the acquisition of top-flight veterans, the sort they say they cannot afford in free agency.
“A lot of the attention last year was ‘well, if it doesn’t work out, and the Royals don’t make it to the playoffs …’” Moore said. “No. It’s the first of many trades we’re going to have to do if we’re going to win,” adding, “That’s what we’ll always have to do.”
Moore refused to close the door on an extension with Shields. But the Royals continue to plan for his departure, which is part of the impetus behind the development of young pitchers Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer. The Royals require those men to be ready for 2015.
For now, the future can wait, both for the club and for Shields. His laughter could be heard as his workout began. A season tinged with promise will soon begin, and this team’s most critical possession has arrived. He has set his sights on October baseball, with little concern about what comes after.
“I feel like that’s what I care about,” Shields said. “And I don’t really worry about anything else.”