KANSAS CITY, Mo. — James Shields acted a little surprised when told the Red Sox may have interest in him this offseason.
“Really? No, I haven’t heard that,” said Shields, who has earned his nickname, “Big Game,” on many occasions over a distinguished career in which he has pitched 200 or more innings eight straight seasons, including this one.
He heads a talented Kansas City pitching staff, and he seems to know that this might be it here, because Wal-Mart magnate David Glass can’t afford him in the modest budget he allots his baseball department. As preposterous as that sounds, Shields, who spent the first seven years of his career in Tampa Bay (which also has budget issues), can finally pick where he wants to play, perhaps for the rest of his career.
There will be no money issues with whatever team gets the gritty, battle-tested pitcher. The Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers, Mariners, Dodgers, and Angels . . . just keep counting the number of teams that will be after him.
When all is said and done, Shields may get more offers than Jon Lester or Max Scherzer on the free agent market. The feeling is Shields may be more affordable because he’s a bit older than those two.
But hold your horses on that one. Shields should land at least a five-year deal, and some team in desperate need of pitching may give him more than that. Maybe as much as Lester gets.
Obtaining Shields won’t be easy for the Red Sox, who will have to pony up more than their philosophy might allow. Shields, who will be 33 in December, isn’t likely to accept a four-year deal. If so, he’s off the list. Shields has been a horse (like Lester and Scherzer), but sometimes those guys can break down later in their careers.
Shields credits his workout regimen, both in season and offseason, for keeping him steady and durable. Shields has made 30 or more starts the last eight seasons. In 2013, he led the league with 34 starts. In 2011, he led the league with 11 complete games. He hasn’t come close to that since, but he insists the complete games did not affect his stamina or health one iota.
“I love that,” Shields said.
But the Royals don’t love it. They don’t want Shields getting hurt on them, so they’ve limited his complete games, especially with a top-echelon bullpen that usually protects his leads.
Shields is 114-89 lifetime (.562) but also 2-4 with a 4.98 ERA in six postseason starts. His season average over his career is 14-11 with a 3.72 ERA, but the big games he pitches are undeniable.
He indicated that the Kansas City situation is somewhat similar to Tampa Bay, with younger players coming together and winning. Shields loves the fact that he’s part of what he calls “something special here.” And when asked whether he’d like to stay, he said, “I’ve really enjoyed it here.”
Shields, as any good teammate would do, said he has not thought about free agency one bit. And for a minute you believe him, since it hasn’t brought on any more pressure to perform. He performs even with the specter of a huge payday ahead, including seven shutout innings against the Tigers on Wednesday.
Imagine Shields at the head of the Red Sox rotation.
Much like Lester, he’s a fighter, a battler. He’s battle-tested in the American League East.
In fact, he referenced Lester and indicated he was surprised that Lester was traded.
“We came up together and I’ve always admired his toughness and that he never gives in,” Shields said. “It seems strange that he’s in Oakland, but they felt they needed a pitcher of that caliber and Jon is as good as they come.”
Longtime teammate (and roomie) Wade Davis, who has become one of the top setup men in baseball, said of Shields, “He’s not second-guessing any of his pitches. He’s very confident in what he wants to throw. He wants to be the guy in those situations. He wants to pitch in the tougher games.”
Shields, who will not face the Red Sox in this four-game series, is 14-7 with a 3.13 ERA in 31 starts (207⅓ innings). He has about three starts to go, so he could surpass his career-best win total of 16.
Is this his best season?
“I mean, there have been some moments, I’ve had some moments, I feel really good overall,” said Shields. “My mechanics are where they need to be. My goal is to go out there and get a win for my team every fifth day.”
Shields is respected by many around the league, including Red Sox manager John Farrell, who admires his toughness, competitiveness, and ability to not to crack under pressure.
If not Lester, Shields would be the pitcher of choice for the Red Sox. But if four years is the ceiling on an offer, don’t waste your time. Shields won’t be that big of a bargain. There are too few top-of-the-rotation pitchers available. He’s one of three, so he’ll get top dollar.
He could very well end up back in the AL East, because the Yankees are going to be big players for him. He loved the AL East environment and feels the AL Central is a little different, though he says, “You can create your own rivalry,” which is what he does with the Detroits and Clevelands.
So put Shields on Boston’s list. But don’t be surprised if the final numbers are far greater than you imagined.