Opinion

James Shields remains a free agent, but Royals ‘not sure there’s a fit’ for reunion

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher James Shields (33) came out of the team's clubhouse with the American League Champions trophy following the 2-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles in Wednesday's ALCS Game 4 on October 15, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher James Shields (33) came out of the team's clubhouse with the American League Champions trophy following the 2-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles in Wednesday's ALCS Game 4 on October 15, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Star

In 24 days, the pitchers and catchers of the 2015 Royals will convene at the club’s complex in Surprise, Ariz. James Shields, the leader of the rotation the last two seasons, is not expected to be there.

This fact should not shock anyone. Shields still remains a free agent, a man without a country, as the season creeps ever closer.

The situation has not gone unnoticed by Royals general manager Dayton Moore. While he maintains an affinity for Shields, who revitalized the team’s culture en route to the World Series, Moore expressed doubt about a reunion, even as Shields’ asking price figures to drop.

The Royals already flaunt a fully stocked pitching rotation. They doled out a two-year, $20 million contract to Edinson Volquez to plug the hole created by Shields’ absence. Moore hopes Kris Medlen can contribute by midseason as he rehabilitates from Tommy John surgery. The team’s payroll figures to surpass $110 million, and could finish more than $20 million over last season’s franchise record. To sign Shields, the organization would likely be forced to engineer a series of corollary maneuvers to wedge him into the budget.

“I’m not sure there’s a fit at this time,” Moore told The Star in a telephone conversation on Monday. “But who knows?”

At this point, the entire industry continues to guess about Shields’ destination. His agent, Page Odle, has ignored media requests for months. Jon Heyman, baseball columnist for CBS Sports, mentioned in a recent post that Odle had not returned more than 30 text messages. The Star has had similar bad luck.

But the consensus culled from conversations with rival officials is Shields has not found the robust market for his services that was once expected. In the last few weeks, he has been linked to teams such as Arizona, Detroit, Miami and St. Louis. Those reports have often been met with denials of interest from team officials.

Shields’ landing spot remains a mystery. Perhaps Milwaukee will strike late, as they have in years past with pitchers Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza. Perhaps Toronto will open its wallet. Maybe Boston will desire a bona fide opening day starter. The only likelihood, at this point, is Shields will sign for less than expected.

At the outset of the offseason, Shields sought at least a five-year contract, according to people familiar with the situation. His resume compares well enough to that of Jon Lester, who cashed in with a six-year, $155 million contract with the Cubs.

From 2011 to 2014, Shields threw 932 2/3 innings with a 3.17 ERA. In those same four seasons, Lester completed 830 innings with a 3.61 ERA. But Lester is two years younger than Shields, with less mileage and a more impressive arsenal stocked in his left arm.

For the Royals, the situation bears a passing resemblance to one they experienced last winter. They pounced on Jason Vargas when they found the demands of Ervin Santana to be untenable. Then the team watched as Santana settled for a one-year, $14.1 million contract with Atlanta.

This time around, the Royals understood from an early juncture — perhaps since the day they acquired Shields before the 2013 season — they were unlikely to retain him past 2014. Subsequent conversations between Odle and Royals officials revealed the gap between the two sides remained a gulf.

So Moore moved forward. The Royals restocked their rotation, and prepared for life without Shields.

“You’re always open-minded,” Moore said. “There’s no reason to ever completely close the book, and move on from opportunities that would make your team better. But obviously we had to put our team together, based on what our beliefs were and are.”

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to rmccullough@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.

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