KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When James Shields broke into the big leagues with Tampa Bay, the Rays were no better than the Kansas City Royals.
They lost more than 100 games his first season, and fared little better the following year. But by his third season as a starter, the Rays had finally turned the corner, many of their prized prospects forming the nucleus of a team that upstaged AL East stalwarts Boston and the Yankees and advanced all the way to the World Series.
Now, after a blockbuster deal that sent Shields and fellow right-hander Wade Davis to the Royals late Sunday, the former All-Star pitcher believes everything is in place for Kansas City to replicate the Rays’ success.
“The Royals are definitely on the right track,” Shields said Monday. “They definitely remind me of our ’07 season going into our ’08 season in the Rays organization, and I think there’s a good possibility we can step in that direction. I’ve been there when we’ve lost 100 games before. I’ve also won 96, 97 games before, and I think me and Wade bring a little of that to the table, knowing how to win and what it takes to win.”
The Royals haven’t known what that’s like in years.
Despite the matriculation of their best prospects to the big league club, the Royals still struggled to a 72-90 record and a third-place finish in the weak AL Central last season. It was their ninth consecutive losing season, and extended to 27 the number of years it’s been since the franchise last played in the postseason.
The biggest reason for the lousy finish was a dearth of starting pitching, and that’s something that general manager Dayton Moore has been aggressively trying to resolve this offseason.
Along with acquiring Shields and Davis in arguably the biggest move his tenure, Moore also re-signed Jeremy Guthrie to a $25 million, three-year deal and acquired Ervin Santana and his $12 million salary from the Los Angeles Angels. That means Kansas City’s top four starters next season weren’t on their opening day roster this past year.
“Our goal is to add as much pitching depth as we can as every organization tends to do, especially this time of year,” said Moore, adding that Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar and Luis Mendoza could compete for the final job in spring training.
Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino, who are both coming off Tommy John surgery this past summer, could also wrestle the job away when they return sometime during the middle of the season.
“It looks like a good mix of people, I think, with Shield and Santana — I’ve seen Guthrie pitch for a couple years with the Orioles,” Davis said. “I’m not a 10-year veteran or a coach, but I think it’s a good mix of people.”
The Royals certainly mortgaged their future to put it together.
Tampa Bay’s biggest prize in the six-player swap is undoubtedly outfielder Wil Myers, widely regarded as the top prospect in the minors. The 22-year-old hit .314 with 37 homers and 109 RBIs last season, and he starred during the All-Star Futures Game hosted by Kansas City, putting together a pair of hits and driving in three runs.
Moore said he tried to keep Myers out of the deal, but he also understood that “you have to give up something to get something,” so he parted with one of the game’s top prospects.
He also sent along right-hander Jake Odorizzi, the Royals’ top pitching prospect, left-hander Mike Montgomery and third baseman Patrick Leonard to Tampa Bay. Kansas City also will receive another player or cash.
“When you get a chance to upgrade and get a pitcher the caliber of James Shields and Wade Davis, we felt it was the right thing for us to do for our team today and going forward,” Moore said.
The Royals have made a significant financial commitment to winning this season.
Along with taking on Santana’s hefty contract, the Royals will pay Shields $10.5 million this season while holding a club option of $12 million with a $1 million buyout for next season. Davis is due to make $2.8 million this season and $4.8 million in 2014, with the Royals holding options on the next three years.
Shields said he relishes the opportunity to return to the role of franchise ace.
It was the same role he had his first few years in Tampa Bay, before David Price and others blossomed, and a role in which he feels comfortable. He’s logged at least 200 innings six consecutive seasons, has 14 complete games over the past two years, and his 3.89 ERA for his career makes him the most effective starter in the Royals’ new-look rotation.
Kansas City starters combined for a 5.01 ERA last season, fifth-worst in the big leagues.
“Starting pitching, I think that’s where it starts,” Shields said. “What the Rays did the last couple years, it’s been about starting pitching and defense. That’s the key to success. Hopefully me and Wade can get the job done.”