Much like many of his 114 of his innings with the White Sox in 2016, James Shields’ effort to convince himself about his 2017 prospects unraveled.
"I have nothing to prove," he said. "Nothing to prove. I think my career speaks for itself. I definitely want to prove to the Chicago White Sox fans who I really am."
The most charitable interpretation of this self-nullifying quote is that Shields changed tenses after three sentences and didn’t tell anybody. He has 133 wins, nine 200-inning seasons and a World Series ring, so his career merit is more or less established. His stock for the season ahead is a different matter.
Shields went 4-12 with a 6.77 ERA (59 ERA+) over 22 starts with the White Sox. If you ignore his San Diego numbers and look for comparable seasons in the majors, you have Edwin Jackson, who posted a 6.33 ERA (60 ERA+) over 27 starts with the Cubs in 2014.
Making Jackson an even better comp, that’s how he reached the halfway point of a four-year deal. He had two years and $22 million remaining on his contract after that disaster; the White Sox owe Shields $20 million through 2018.
So what would that mean for the days ahead? Well, Rick Renteria moved Jackson to the bullpen at the end of the 2014 season, and Joe Maddon kept him there for the rest of his Cubs career — all 3½ months of it. Jackson made 23 respectable relief appearances in 2015 before the Cubs released him at the start of the second half, replacing him with Rafael Soriano, then ultimately Clayton Richard. Theo Epstein parted with his biggest mistake with $15 million or so left on his deal, and Jackson spent the rest of the contract occupying a rotation spot for tanking teams (Braves and Padres).
Right now, Shields is that starter for a tanking team, and unlike Jackson, he’s probably not going to be able to reach 94-95 mph out of the bullpen. His career is thus against the ropes, and reactions from various White Sox personnel over the last six months make me think they don’t have much emotion invested in his output. For example, here’s Don Cooper trying to make a case for optimism ...
"He was traded midseason, trade deadline, after getting hammered by the owner out there," Cooper said. "It couldn't have been a great situation. He comes to a new team, with us, trying to impress, trying to really want to jump in there and help, tried to do a lot more than he was capable of doing. He wasn't there. It didn't turn out the way he wanted it to.
"He still has everything he needs stuff-wise to get people out. He has movement. He has a great changeup. He commands that fastball. We're hoping for a whole lot better for sure. And I'm sure he is, too."
... but this quote didn’t make any of the stories:
Cooper thinks Shields is in better mental place, but said his mistakes were physical "It wasn’t mental when the balls were leaving the park"— James Fegan (@JRFegan) February 16, 2017
It’s not good. That said, the White Sox could use a dead-cat bounce from Shields for at least a couple months, as all of the Sox’ best young starter possibilities started their service clocks last season. Carson Fulmer accrued 33 days, Lucas Giolito racked up 39 and Reynaldo Lopez had 44. If the White Sox want to promote any or all of them with the intent of allowing them to stay, you’re looking at the second half of May for Fulmer, with the corresponding amount of days added for the former Washington prospects.
Besides, it’s possible that Shields might have some wisdom to impart now that he’s a near-term inevitability. He sounded excited about a fresh start for all parties involved ...
"I'm smiling because I've been a part of rebuilds quite a bit," Shields said. "So for me, I love it. I absolutely love it. I love having the young kids, being a veteran, being a leader on the team and showing these guys what professional baseball is all about. I've been very successful with the teams I've been on with the rebuilds. We've got a good group of guys. Lot of young talent, lot of good talent and I'm excited to see these guys.”
... and while it’s tempting to write that off as desperate bluster, a San Diego Union-Tribune story on Thursday provided some backup. Wil Myers gave Shields a lot of credit for forcing the injury-prone first baseman to put mind over matter while battling a sore forearm.
Two days later, Myers had a conversation with James Shields, a veteran pitcher who hadn’t missed a start since the end of 2007. Essentially, Myers said, Shields told him to “quit being a baby.”
“Out of high school, I signed for $2 million,” Myers said. “I was a bonus baby. When I was in the minor leagues, if something was bothering me, it was just like, ‘OK, take a day.’ That’s the way I came up. That’s the way I thought you played the game.
“I wasn’t a wuss. I just didn’t know any better. … It took James Shields telling me three years into my big-league career, ‘You’ve got to stop being a wuss and get out there and play every day because that’s what you do here. You’re at the highest level now. There is nowhere else to go. You’re here. So it’s about showing up every day, doing your routine and playing every single day.’”
Playing through pain isn’t always sound advice, but Myers had topped out at 87 games over his first three seasons, so it made sense for him to take the field if he’s physically able. As it turned out, Myers played in 157 games for the Padres in 2016, and now he’s in Shields’ corner.
“I’m a huge fan of James Shields,” Myers said. “He’s a guy I would want on my team any day of the week. If that guy is telling me to do that, I better listen. He’s the epitome of going out every day.”
Assuming “stop being a wuss” isn’t the only club in Shields’ bag, he could serve a similar purpose somewhere along the line if he can perform even a little. For the time being, it’ll be Shields who will have to suck it up, because he’ll probably be packing it up if he sucks.
That’s a lot of words about a guy who might be at the end of the line, so let’s end with a few words about a guy who’s just getting started.