August 17th, 2000 - Signed first professional contract with the Devil Rays
May 31st, 2006 - Made Major League debut
October 2nd, 2012 - Makes final start in Rays uniform.
That sort of reads like an obituary. In some respects it is. James Shields will not be in a Rays uniform next season. Or the next season. Or the season after that. Those are some of the strangest words my fingers have been forced to type.
Shields has spent his entire adult life in the Rays organization. A 16th round draft choice, he excelled in his first taste of pro baseball, posting a 2.55 ERA in stops in Charleston and Hudson Valley as a 19-year-old. The next season he would injure his shoulder which required major surgery, forcing him to miss the entire season. The injury reduced his velocity a bit but may have been a blessing in disguise as it caused him to develop a changeup, which has turned into his signature pitch and one of the best such pitches in all of baseball. He would struggle after the surgery with ERA's north of 4.50 in 2003 and 2004. Things seemed to click again in 2005 with Double-A Montgomery and in 2006, after just 61.1 innings of Triple-A ball, Shields would make his major league debut.
The 21 starts that season were a learning experience. He got knocked around some but was better for it and came into his own in 2007. Since then he's been one of the most consistent and durable starting pitchers in the game. He's thrown at least 200 innings in each of the past six seasons and only four pitchers have thrown more over that time. His 23.4 WAR ranks 13th in baseball, virtually the same as Matt Cain. He was the perfect pitcher for an imperfect team.
One of the most impressive things about Shields, aside from all of the other traits coaches and teammates love about him, was how he improved from his dreadful 2010 season. His dedication to his craft -- namely adjusting and getting a better understanding of sequencing -- lead him to his greatest season to date and a third place finish in the 2011 Cy Young voting.
He's the team leader in wins (87), innings pitched (1,454.2), strikeouts (1250), games started (217), complete games (19), and shutouts (8)
Trades like this will never not hurt. We're fans, and fans grow attached to players. It's natural. As Rays fans we make a special pact with the team, though. In rooting for them you must understand the economic scope the team works within. Players are assets. When you build enough assets you can attempt to trade them at their peak value to provide the best possible return, thus improving yourself for the future while not damaging, and sometimes even improving, the present. That's what was done here. As much as it sucks to not have Shields in a Rays uniform any longer, it's the cold yet necessary move the team felt like it had to make.
When looking back on Shields' career a few games/moments specifically stand out to me: Picking up the win in Game 2 of the 2008 World Series; throwing the pitch that started the brawl in Boston and narrowly missing CoCo Crisp with a punch that I'm convinced would have left him unconscious; his complete game one hit, zero walk performance against the Angels in 2008; the abundance of complete games and pickoffs in 2011; and his final game of 2012 against the Orioles. Your memories will differ, but that's the beauty of his career in Tampa Bay; he gave us many to choose from.
The Orioles provide convenient bookends to Shields' career as a Ray. In 2006 he stepped onto the mound in Baltimore a 24-year-old fresh-faced bundle of nerves. Six years later, after his last start of the season, he walked off the Tropicana Field mound with his head held high, having just thrown a complete game against the Orioles, setting the single game team strikeout record (15) along the way.
He couldn't have chosen a much better performance to go out on. Goodbye, Shields. You will be missed.