How are the Rays supposed to react when they step up to the plate and see the most dependable pitcher in the history of their franchise, James Shields, staring back at them from the mound? Their first reaction has to be utter befuddlement. For six years, he was the heart and soul of their franchise, and now here he is going up against them trying to beat them. Their pitching staff may have the talent to continue being great without him, but the credit so much of their development rests squarely on Shields’ shoulders. He was the pitcher who delivered 200-inning season after 200-innings season, becoming a pitcher that Joe Maddon had to forcibly remove from the mound to prevent him from giving the Rays seven innings in a key game. He struggled but then he only came back stronger, following up his horrible 2010 with an untouchable 2011 and then adversity in the first half of 2012 as trade rumors swooned with a dominating finish to the year. How could he be wearing another uniform?
This isn’t a Scott Kazmir situation where he departed only after following apart. This isn’t even a Carl Crawford situation where he became a free agent and the Rays simply couldn’t afford him. The Rays had Shields under contract for two more years and traded him away. What did they receive? A top outfield prospect in Wil Myers who has a chance to team with Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist to give them the strongest offense they have ever had for years to come. But was it worth it? It isn’t just the dollars and cents. It isn’t just the performance Shields gave the Rays and could continue to give. Isn’t it humiliating as a Rays fan to know that the most reliable pitcher you have ever seen is wearing another uniform not because he lost effectiveness, not out of necessity, but because the Rays made a choice? Is this going to haunt the Rays forever?
Tom Seaver put the New York Mets on the map, playing a major role in turning them from a laughingstock throughout baseball to the champions of baseball in 1969 and a perennial contender for years thereafter, including a return to the World Series in 1973. James Shields is no Tom Seaver, but the role he’s playing is exactly the same. Seaver went 5-3 with a 2.28 ERA in 11 starts against the Mets as a member of the Cincinnati Reds and tossed a no-hitter in a Reds uniform in 1978, his first full season in Cincinnati. The Mets franchise would not get a no-hitter until Johan Santana in 2012. It was in Seaver’s final season as a professional in 1986, though, the Mets won the World Series again, with Seaver closing out his career as a member of the AL champion Red Sox. Just because Seaver was such an integral part of the Mets’ past didn’t mean he had to be a part of their future and didn’t mean they could not overcome his loss. And the Mets only traded Seaver because they were losing, going just 64-98 in 1977, and they wouldn’t finish above .500 again until 1984. That isn’t the case with this Rays team. Shields is gone, but the Rays’ pitching staff is as talented as ever and their team has a chance to make the postseason and do damage once they get there. The only thing left is the psychological hurdle of losing Shields, of knowing that when there’s a big game, there won’t be Big Game James taking the mound. Can they overcome that? It’s going to be an undergoing process, but their matchup with Shields tonight gives them a chance to get the ball rolling and build confidence even with their security blanket gone. Can the Rays demonstrate that as crucial that Shields was to their success, they can reach even loftier heights without him?