In the early years of their franchise, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were infamous for drafting horribly, selecting a slew of overvalued players who would save them money and crippling themselves for years and years in the process. In the 1999 offseason, they only made matters worse by signing free agents Mo Vaughn, Vinny Castilla, and Juan Guzman, costing themselves their second round through fourth round picks in the 2000 MLB Draft in the process. In that 2000 draft, the D-Rays made one of their typical mistake picks, selecting Rocco Baldelli 6th overall. Baldelli became a fan favorite during his time with the Rays, but signs of the injuries that would end his career prematurely were visible as early as his high school career as he missed much of the year with an oblique injury and the D-Rays completely ignored them. Baldelli had been considered more of a late first round talent because of the severe questions to his durability, but D-Rays selected him nevertheless. The rest of the D-Rays’ draft proceeded as usual- badly. Other than Baldelli, just one of the Devil Rays’ other picks in the first 15 rounds of the draft made the big leagues: lefty Mark Malaska, who made just 22 relief appearances with the team. The D-Rays also failed to sign six players who would later make the big leagues with other teams, most notably Luke Scott and Nick Blackburn. So what did the Rays get out of the 2000 MLB Draft? Three good years from Baldelli, Malaska’s modest contribution to the team, and 64 games from 24th round pick Shawn Riggins as a backup catcher. But we’re leaving out one player that changed the course of Rays history forever. Down in the 16th round, the Devil Rays selected a high school right-handed pitcher named James Shields.
In 2000 at Hart High School in Newhall, California, Shields was a well-regarded prospect, leading his team to a California Division II championship in his junior year while showing a good pitcher’s frame, a fastball that topped out at 91 MPH, a good curveball, and a feel for a changeup. However, Shields performance dipped his senior year as he dealt with a shoulder injury, and adding in a commitment to LSU, Shields looked like a very tough sign. However, the Devil Rays took a chance on him down in the 16th round of the 2000 MLB Draft and persistently negotiated with him until they convinced him to sign, finally getting him to agree to terms on August 17th, 2000. Shields came with plenty of risk, but down in the 16th round, he was a pitcher with nice upside and the Rays could afford to take the chance. Good thing they did.
Shields made the Devil Rays look like geniuses immediately by selecting him, blowing by Short Season-A and Low-A as a 19 year old as he managed a 2.55 ERA and an 85-15 strikeout to walk ratio in 15 starts and 98.2 IP between the two levels. Shields hit a speed bump the next year when he had to undergo shoulder surgery, but since then he has proven to be everything the Rays dreamed he could become and more, blossoming into the leader of the Rays pitching staff as he helped them to their magical season in 2008, dominated in a remarkable 2011, and became a key contributor to their outstanding run of the last five years. Since the first time he stepped on a diamond at Short Season-A Hudson Valley, Shields has been a revelation for the Rays organization and he did everything he possibly could do to lead the Rays into contention during his time in Tampa Bay. After everything Shields has given the Rays since the start, seeing him in a Royals uniform next season will be awfully tough.