- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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SURPRISE, Ariz. -- James Shields arrives in Kansas City with a well-deserved reputation as a leader, a dedicated teammate and a player who’ll do whatever is necessary to earn his day’s pay. As the Royals are discovering, that means more than just pitching well with 30,000 people in the stands. Sometimes it means showing commitment when the grass is wet with dew and hardly anyone is watching.
Manager Ned Yost took notice early in spring training when Shields and fellow starters Jeremy Guthrie, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana gathered one morning for live batting practice. If any of the Kansas City players or coaches in attendance were bleary-eyed, they quickly awoke to the sound of pitchers grunting and catchers’ mitts popping.
“Their stuff was very electric and they were banging strikes with it,’’ Yost said. “But it was more the intensity and focus that they brought out to a 9 o’clock workout when everybody else was in the clubhouse. It was phenomenal.
“Nine times out of 10 guys are like, 'It’s a 9 o’clock workout -- I’ll just get through it.' But that wasn’t part of their agenda. We had nine shaggers out there and we had eight too many. That’s how good they were throwing. We couldn’t even get a ball out of the cage.’’
The Royals took one of the big risks of the winter when they acquired Shields and Davis from Tampa Bay as part of a seven-player trade in December. Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore, forsaking long-term potential in an effort to add instant respectability to the team’s rotation, sent Triple-A slugger Wil Myers, pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi and two other minor leaguers to the Rays in the deal.
Lord knows, the Royals were in need of help. Kansas City’s starters ranked 12th in the American League in ERA (5.01) and batting average against (.283) and logged a mere 890 innings last season. Among the 14 AL teams, only Minnesota's rotation threw fewer innings.
Shields is the quintessential modern-day horse. He has surpassed 200 innings for six straight seasons, and his 1,330 innings since 2007 rank fifth in the game behind CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez. Two years ago, Shields logged 11 complete games for the Rays. He became the first pitcher to collect at least 11 since Randy Johnson recorded 12 for Seattle in 1999.
“I feel like I have an old-school soul,’’ Shields said. “I pride myself on going deep in games. I don’t care if I give up four runs or no runs. I like saving the bullpen. I think it’s very important. I don’t want the manager to come take the ball from me. I’m very competitive when it comes to that.’’
In many ways, Shields approaches the game with the same underdog mentality he embraced upon being chosen in the 16th round with the 466th pick in the 2000 draft. Three years ago, Shields allowed the most hits (246), earned runs (117) and homers (34) in the American League, so he changed his training regimen, tightened up his motion and got his career back on track. Just like that, he made the All-Star team and finished third in the Cy Young race in 2011.
Shields got tagged with the “Big Game James’’ nickname in the minor leagues by teammate Chris Flinn, a diehard fan of North Carolina hoops and Los Angeles Lakers star James Worthy. The handle eventually morphed into “Complete Game James’’ when Shields began going nine innings with regularity. As long as his managers continue to hand him the ball and keep the mound visits to a minimum, he doesn’t care what people call him.
“He’s going to bring some intensity that we need from a pitcher's side,’’ said Royals outfielder Jeff Francoeur. “I always remember John Smoltz telling me that you can’t have the leader of the team be a pitcher, because they’re not playing every day. But from the pitching staff’s standpoint, you need a leader, and I think he can be that guy. When you come in here having done what he’s done, guys respect him.’’
Shields is the cousin of former big league outfielder Aaron Rowand, a hardcore team guy who made a habit of planning club bonding rituals during his 11-year career with the White Sox, Phillies and Giants. Rowand’s bowling tournaments were an annual rite of spring during his time in San Francisco.
Shields borrowed a page from cousin Aaron’s playbook this spring when he scheduled a team golf outing with Francoeur at the Raven Golf Course in Phoenix. A total of 40 Royals showed up for the event. For sake of levity, Shields and Francoeur brought along a generous supply of exploding golf balls. They surprised infielder Miguel Tejada, reliever Kelvim Herrera, catcher Salvador Perez and several others with the gag.
“It’s a way of breaking that barrier, of breaking that shell,’’ Shields said. “We’re going to be with each other for 181 days during the season. That’s a long time when you’re with the same people 24 hours a day. I feel like this is our home away from home and we have to treat it like that.’’
Shields will expound at length on the value of team chemistry and the importance of developing it in spring training, when the schedule is less oppressive and the intensity doesn't burn as brightly. If that sentiment sounds corny or old-fashioned, so be it. Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay’s executive vice president of baseball operations, has a reputation as a guy who likes his analytics. But when Friedman talked about how difficult it was for the Rays to trade Shields, he wasn't thinking about Shields’ component ERA, his xFIP or his power-finesse ratio.
He’s going to bring some intensity that we need from a pitcher’s side.
”-- Royals outfielder Jeff
Francoeur on Shields
How much did the Rays respect Shields? During their time in Tampa Bay, Shields and his wife, Ryane, started the “Big Game James Club’’ and invited foster children to games at Tropicana Field. Even though Shields is now in Kansas City, the Rays plan to continue the initiative in his name. The news came as a relief to Shields, who said several foster children in the program were adopted during his tenure with the Rays.
Shields plans to do his share of community service for the Royals as well, but at the moment he’ll have to settle for the role of assistant social director to Francoeur. During the inevitable down time in the clubhouse, Shields will stake out a seat at the big table near his locker and engage his teammates in baseball talk.
“He’s already beating the drum,’’ Yost said. “He’s like, 'Yeah, I’m a 200-inning guy. But so are you and you and you and you.' As a starting staff, we’re going to amass 1,000 innings. That’s our goal as a group. That’s what we’re shooting for.’’
Said Guthrie, “When you watch him pitch, you can see he takes it as his game. He’s gonna be aggressive. He’s in it to finish it. He has that mentality of a front-of-the-rotation guy. He plans on throwing eight or nine innings every time out. If he doesn’t, he’s disappointed and shocked in himself to some extent.’’
As a fly ball pitcher, Shields will have to deal with the adjustment of leaving a pitcher’s park in Tampa for a more neutral yard at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. But he’ll also have more starts against American League Central competition and fewer outings against stronger AL East lineups. He’s signed for $9 million this year with a $12 million club option in 2014, so he has two years to make it work.
The Royals can rest assured that whatever bumps Shields encounters in this new chapter of his career, he’ll find a way to work through them. There’s no telling what a man can achieve with a blue-collar work ethic and an old-school soul.