Rogers: Shields move could pay big for Chicago

June 5th, 2016

You always hear that baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. But look at it like an auto race, a long auto race -- say, the Indy 500, the Daytona 500.

Yes, since the White Sox got off to a fast start, jumping from their starting position in the pack to shoot past the pole-sitting Royals and Indians, they've taken on some sheet-metal damage. They may even be experiencing engine problems. But they haven't lost the belief that if they get everything running right again, they'll be near the front of the pack -- if not in the lead -- heading down the final stretch.

So they have briefly pulled into the garage to pick up parts, in this case one of baseball's most consistent innings-eaters -- a right-handed Mark Buehrle, if you will.

White Sox complete swap for righty Shields

With James Shields added to the rotation behind the 1-2 combination of Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, the White Sox will get right back out on the track to try to run down the Royals and Indians, who passed them while they were sputtering during a 6-17 stretch that included Saturday's 7-4 loss in Detroit.

"An acquisition like this does have an impact in the clubhouse," White Sox general Manager Rick Hahn said on Saturday night. "Not only from the players realizing that the front office is focused to do everything in our power to help them win as many games as possible this year, but also in adding a guy who has been through these battles before, who has been a leader on successful clubs, the influence he can have, whether it's in difficult stretches like we're going through now or crunch time, when it's time for the playoffs."

Yes, he said it. Of course he said it.

Crunch time, when it's time for the playoffs.

There's not a White Sox fan alive who wouldn't want to see the 2016 team battling in late September to win the American League Central, where 86-88 wins might be enough to throw down against such teams as the Red Sox, Orioles, Rangers and Mariners in October.

There's no reason the White Sox shouldn't be right there, with that chance.

Assuming Sale and Quintana stay healthy and Jose Abreu doesn't finish the season with the .699 OPS he's sporting, the White Sox should come out of their recent funk and step up their season pace, which has them winning 84 games. They have the pieces to reach the postseason for the first time since 2008.

Hahn and his bosses recognize that, which is why they struck when they saw a chance to get better. They're sending 26-year-old right-hander Erik Johnson and 17-year-old Dominican shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. to the Padres in a complicated transaction that brings Shields to U.S. Cellular, where, during the last weekend of the 2014 season, he helped the Royals clinch a postseason spot for the first time since 1985.

Adding Shields in early June, when he still has time to make 20 starts and do much to take innings off a bullpen that has been overworked because of the inconsistency of Carlos Rodon, Mat Latos and Miguel Gonzalez (who took over when John Danks was released, a move that signaled the serious nature of White Sox management), was the kind of calculated risk that can pay huge dividends. You never like to give up young talent -- and the White Sox have given up more than their share of it -- but the potential return here outweighs the risk.

Make no mistake about it: The Royals don't reach the postseason in '14 without Shields, and if they don't break through, then they may not have won the World Series over the Mets last October.

Shields is an impact guy, a force as much with his winning, grind-it-out personality -- he knows when to smile and when to sneer -- as with the arm that has won 129 games and thrown 2,180 innings for the Rays, Royals and Padres.

Now that Buehrle isn't playing, Shields is the only starter in the Major Leagues who has thrown 200-plus innings each of the last nine seasons. But talent evaluators graded him harshly when he hit the free-agent market after 2014. He didn't land a deal until Feb. 11 and has gone 15-14 with a 4.00 ERA in 44 starts for his hometown Padres.

Shields is 34, and his fastball isn't what it once was. He's lost two miles per hour off it since 2014. (Although interestingly, at an average of 91.4 mph, it is only two-tenths off his average fastball in 2008, when he helped Joe Maddon's Rays win a pennant.)

Shields was pounded by the Mariners his last time out -- and the White Sox would like you to know his season ERA was 3.06 before that outing sent it soaring to 4.28 -- and has underwhelmed since signing a four-year, $75 million contract (with an option for a fifth year and an opt-out clause after this season).

But here's what Hahn thinks he is, in a word: tough.

Tough enough to stare down AL lineups and pitch regularly in a home park where fly balls sail into the seats in the summer months. Hahn believes Shields' toughness will make him an asset for a rotation that is third in the AL with a 3.64 ERA.

"I think the most important factor in this acquisition, projecting out James, is he has a very long track record of durability and consistent performance," Hahn said. "Our scouts and our analysts feel that he is going to be able to provide us with a solid presence in that rotation."

But here's a big point to consider.

Whereas Shields was Tampa Bay's ace before David Price, the guy Kansas City skipper Ned Yost looked to as a No. 1 starter and a conquering hero expected to sprinkle magic dust around the Padres' clubhouse, the White Sox are already fueled by the twin pistons of Sale and Quintana. They aren't really looking to Shields to turn back the clock.

"He has proven he can be an elite starter in the American League historically, but that's not necessarily what we're asking of him going forward," Hahn said. "Obviously, the higher quality his performance is going forward, the better. But at the same time, with the way our rotation sets up for the next few years, we just need him to be a nice, stabilizing presence in the middle of it. From our standpoint he's just an important, solid presence in the rotation going forward."

Shields is a relatively low-risk financial option for the White Sox because the Padres are reportedly obligated to pay $31 million of the $58 million owed him. He's on the White Sox books at $5 million for the rest of this season and only $10 million in each of the next two, assuming he doesn't exercise his opt-out clause to go back on the free-agent market in the winter.

Given that this is a thin, seller's market, Shields might do exactly that if he does solid work down the stretch. But the White Sox are OK with him having that right.

Hahn says the low commitment for 2016 -- less than half of what Chicago saved when Adam LaRoche retired during Spring Training -- means he still has resources to add a bat (preferably left-handed) or maybe another reliever.

This is definitely a face-saving trade for the Padres -- cutting bait on Shields and landing a couple of interesting players in return. Johnson should immediately go into San Diego's rotation and could flourish when given a second chance to pitch every fifth day in the Major Leagues. He showed his potential when he was International League Pitcher of the Year last season but hadn't gained the confidence of Hahn and White Sox manager Robin Ventura.

He's a winner in this trade, for sure. We'll see about the White Sox. If they win, they can win big.