With the Major League Baseball trade deadline looming, the Royals were 48-50, eight games back and approaching a philosophical crossroads.
Buy for immediate impact, or sell for future consideration?
No Royal could better symbolize that distinction of approach than ace starter James Shields, an improbable part of their future with free agency likely to escalate his asking price out of the Royals’ range.
But there is no evidence the Royals dangled Shields, despite some reflexive clamor to deal him for prospects or a supposed instant bat even as they were winning six of the next eight up to last month’s deadline.
If they did consider it, or entertained calls about him, they resisted any reckless temptation to deal him.
That’s because if there was any doubt at all, it was always going to be about right here, right now for the Royals — who had won 18 of 22 entering this weekend at Minnesota to take over first place in the American League Central Division.
And if this was the season that was going to set a template for the future and become the bridge from nowhere, it wasn’t going to happen without Shields.
It would have been a compelling enough argument to stay with Shields because of his pitching alone:
He’s 11-6 with a 3.29 ERA, and he’s long since emerged from a mini-funk to give up just seven earned runs over 36 innings in his last five starts.
Now, couple that with the notion that his presence at the top of the rotation has helped lend form and structure and proportion to the rest of what right now is one of the best Royals staffs since the 1980s.
But it’s his least tangible trait, to outsiders, anyway, that might be the most irreplaceable.
No one exerts more influence in the Royals clubhouse and has altered the chemistry and culture of the room more than Shields since he was acquired on Dec. 9, 2012.
No one is more in the ears, and maybe even faces, of young pitchers. Ask Danny Duffy about his breakthrough season, and learning how to harness his emotions, and he’ll quickly point to Shields.
And no one is more cognizant of the details of the big picture, from setting a standard in work ethic to advising closer Greg Holland what music to run into from the bullpen to orchestrating the way the Royals celebrate after victories.
This is a team that looks to and channels Shields.
It will only do that more if it reaches the playoffs for the first time since 1985: If it’s a one-game wild-card playoff, count on Shields and his postseason experience to get that call … and as many as possible in any series.
Removing that presence from the room would have left a void and discombobulated everyone else in it.
Teams adjust all the time to mid-season roster changes, but Shields is a rare presence whose stature is enhanced by the currency of his experience.
“He’s got a ton of energy, he’s a tremendous competitor, and he’s a great communicator, and you couple all that together,” manager Ned Yost said. “He’s always talking to guys, he’s always encouraging guys, he’s always upbeat with guys.
“And he’s in it for the team more than he’s in it for himself. Guys see it, they recognize it, they go with it.”
None of which means the Royals officially can proclaim victory in The Trade that many scorned (or at least questioned): dealing hot-shot outfield prospect Wil Myers and pitcher Jake Odorizzi (essentially) to Tampa Bay for Shields and Wade Davis.
Myers was hitting .227 when he suffered a broken wrist on May 30 after being named AL rookie of the year in 2013 (.293 with 13 home runs and 53 RBIs in 88 games). He may at last return next week.
Odorizzi, 24, seems to have a bright enough future and is having a decent enough season. Entering the weekend for the 60-61 Rays, he’s 9-9 with a 3.82 ERA.
Those contributions, though, pale next to the exploits of Shields and Davis, suddenly the most fearsome reliever in the American League.
Now, the data on this will change in the years to come. And attitudes about this will evolve at different altitudes of hindsight.
But in this moment, which is everything to a Royals franchise basically seeking to regain the public trust, we know this:
The Royals wouldn’t be in this position without Shields and Davis.
This mesmerizing time wouldn’t look like this right now without that move, even if Myers were healthy and productive for the Royals.
Now, it would go a long way toward validating the trade if they make the playoffs.
But no matter what, these were the right moves for the Royals — both to acquire Shields and to keep him.
They triggered changes in the fundamental dynamics of their pitching, which before 2013 had gone 20 years without a staff ERA under 4.00.
And they changed the tone of a room and the direction of a franchise whose future always was over a vague horizon to one where it’s now.