If there is a forgotten man in Major League Baseball’s vast crop of unsigned free-agent pitchers, it’s James Shields

Sure, the 32-year-old right-hander has been the subject of numerous rumors. But while twin aces Max Scherzer and Jon Lester have commanded the offseason spotlight, Shields has been mostly shoved into the shadows.

Is this fair? That’s an interesting question.

On the one hand, Shields looks like an attractive target for any club that needs pitching—and really, what club doesn’t?

After all, Shields just posted a 3.21 ERA to go along with 180 strikeouts and a 1.181 WHIP with the American League-champion Kansas City Royals. 

Plus, he started an MLB-leading 34 games and tossed 227 innings, the eighth straight time he’s eclipsed the 200-inning mark in his nine-year career.

That’s Shields’ defining trait: durability. It’s the biggest concern any team should have when locking up a starter for the long haul—can this guy stay healthy?

So far, Shields has answered with a resounding “yes.”

But (could you sense there was a “but” coming?) doubts remain about his, well, how shall we put this? Fortitude. 

Blame it on the nickname. You know the one, “Big Game James.” It haunted Shields in the 2014 postseason, during which he coughed up 17 earned runs in 25 innings.

Overall, he owns a pedestrian 5.46 playoff ERA, which pretty much puts the “big game” business to rest.

Except that stuff tends to stick; reputations, good or bad, are hard to shake. And right now, it’s possible Shields is a victim of his own mythology.

If he is being doubted by potential free-agent suitors, it wouldn’t be the first time he’s faced adversity.

When Kansas City acquired Shields from the Tampa Bay Rays prior to the 2013 season for a package of top prospects, it wasn’t a widely popular move. In fact, Rob Neyer, now of FoxSports.com, called it the “worst trade in MLB history.”

OK, enough doom and gloom. Let’s take a peek at the positive. Less than two years after Neyer issued his incorrect, and quite possibly hyperbolic, tweet, the Royals advanced to the World Series, where they lost a heartbreaking seven-game series to the San Francisco Giants.

Shields was instrumental to the run, October shortcomings notwithstanding.

“I know what kind of pitcher he is,” Kansas City skipper Ned Yost said prior to Game 5 of the 2014 Fall Classic, per Blair Kerkhoff of The Kansas City Star. “I know when he steps on the mound he’s going to be ready physically and mentally to compete and give us the best effort.” 

The Royals ultimately lost Game 5. Yost‘s point, however, stands. Shields has proven over the course of his career that you can count on him to log innings, to add value and to win games.

ESPN.com‘s David Schoenfield highlights Shields’ “deep arsenal of pitches,” including a superlative changeup and plus curveball that complement his fastball and cutter.

In the end, Schoenfield concludes, “That points to a pitcher who should age well, even if he loses a little velocity…”

Still, as Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com notes, “we’ve heard very little about the market” for Shields.

Rosenthal goes on to say the Arizona Diamondbacks have at least kicked the tires. And in a previous tweet, he indicated the Miami Marlins were interested:

Still, this is peripheral noise. Clearly, the focus is on Scherzer and Lester, and once those dominoes fall, the rest of the free-agent pitchers will learn their fates.

Fair enough. Except that, from some angles, Shields looks like an arm that ought to be part of the conversation, one of the elite starters driving the market.

The reason he isn’t is open for debate. What’s clear for now is this: Though he’ll soon be remembered by someone, today Big Game James is baseball’s forgotten man.


All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

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