The White Sox current rebuild started on June 4, 2016 even though no one knew it at the time. For my 28th birthday, the Sox got me a heavily-used James Shields for the low, low cost (at the time) of Erik Johnson and Fernando Tatis Jr. Johnson looked like he could maybe soak up innings as a fifth starter for a few seasons and Tatis was 17 years old. That’s the most lottery ticket age possible. Think of all the 17 year olds you’ve ever known. So much potential, so much failure. The trade was made with the hopes that Shields would look more like the Kansas City version of himself than the San Diego variant riddle with red flags. The rotation of Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Carlos Rodon needed just a little more help to break that eight year playoff dry spell.
Instead, Shields unsurprisingly got worse. It’s almost like moving a pitcher who is struggling in San Diego while getting to face pitchers isn’t going to thrive on the South Side in a league that happens to feature the designated hitter. Who would have thunk it? We all remember how things went after that. Shields fell apart, giving up 31 home runs in only 114.1 innings and the team cratered with him. Sale and Adam Eaton were shipped out for prospect bonanzas mere months later and the White Sox were finally entering the first honest rebuild of our lifetimes. Johnson got hurt and likely won’t matter. Tatis wound up developing into A Guy and a global level prospect that would be right up there with Eloy Jimenez as a crown jewel in the system. Whoops!
Shields became a punching bag for Sox fans and his 2017 follow-up, while an improvement, was still terrible. The anger and resentment continued to grow despite the Padres kicking in enough money that his contract wasn’t actually that burdensome (and the fact that the Sox weren’t going to be spending money on any major contracts any time soon making the anger very misplaced). 2018 was going to be the season of the young gun pitchers with Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez each throwing their first full major league seasons and Rodon coming back from injury. The bullpen would have to cover more innings for the youngsters meaning someone had to soak up innings on the roster and who better to provide veteran sponge-manship than Shields?
To his credit, Shields wore it well. From all credible reports, he embraced the absolute hell out of his new role as positive veteran mentor and did his part. Yes, he was still below league average but only slightly so this year (93 ERA+). Is basically league-average what the Sox thought they were getting when they traded for him? No. Of course not. But on a 100 loss team, 204.2 innings of such skill are pretty valuable. Yes, Shields led the AL in losses but he threw 16 more innings than anyone else on the team during a season in which his main goal could charitably be described as “please throw at least five innings a night”. And he did it!
I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Sox work out a deal with Shields to come back next season even after not picking up his option this winter. There are still innings needing to be eaten and he’s clearly comfortable with the role and the team. The initial trade was a failure, that can’t be denied. But barring some big moves this winter, next season won’t be about contention and the team could certainly do worse.