KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Early this spring, James Shields and David Price were texting like they always do. For the first time in five years, they weren't in camp together, weren't wearing matching uniforms, weren't even in the same state. Price wanted to update Shields about the latest antics at Tampa Bay Rays camp. And Shields wanted to let Price know what life is like outside the comfort of the Rays bubble.
"It's different here," he said, and it wasn't a slight to his new team, the Kansas City Royals, as much as it was a truth. Everywhere is different than Tampa Bay, and especially Kansas City, which has seen one winning season and 12 with 90 or more losses since the 1994 strike. He was going to change things, he told Price. He needed to.
For an organization run by quants, the Rays' clubhouse reflects a very different sentiment: a deep, strong belief in the power of team chemistry, a piece of which the Royals believed they were buying when they gave up Wil Myers, arguably the best hitting prospect in baseball, in an offseason trade for Shields. The baseball world saw the Royals finally getting a pitcher to replace Zack Greinke. The Royals saw Shields as so much more: a one-man culture bomb set to detonate and turn their clubhouse into Tampa Bay: Plains.
Around the team, they say it's happening. It's not just the Royals' 5-3 record and spot atop the American League Central. They're less than 5 percent into the season. It's this sense about themselves they say wasn't there in the past. And even though much of it is due to a tremendous young core and a starting rotation worth a damn, Royals players swear Shields' influence extends beyond his 12 innings with 14 strikeouts and no walks.
Whether it is pulling players aside to talk them through struggles or cracking up a bus full of teammates, Shields' mixture of gravitas and humor is the perfect chemistry potion. Before he traded Myers, pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery, and third baseman Patrick Leonard, Royals general manager Dayton Moore wanted to know if Shields was the lead-by-voice or lead-by-example sort. He wanted the former. Even if catcher Salvador Perez is a natural leader, he's 22. The rest of the Royals' candidates were either not strong enough voices (Alex Gordon and Billy Butler), not established enough (Mike Moustakas) or not productive enough (Jeff Francoeur) to be that lead voice. Along with the opening day start, Shields would inherit that role.
It didn't take immediately. The concern voiced to Price was legitimate. Manager Ned Yost can come off as prickly and crusty, the antithesis, in many ways, of the Rays' laissez-faire Joe Maddon. Shields told Price: I need to loosen this place up.
"He started off pretty slow, which I think was the right thing to do, rather than completely overhaul immediately," said Elliot Johnson, the utilityman who came to Kansas City with Shields and starter Wade Davis. "We are the new people here. But he brings a certain leadership. He had it with the Rays, and he wants it here. And he's doing a good job of initiating that role.
"It all depends on us winning. If you win, you can have fun. If you're losing, everyone needs to make sure they're doing their job. Everyone needs to mind their Ps and Qs. Everyone needs to blah, blah, blah. Because ownership wants to win. Because attendance is down. So the owner puts it on the general manager, and the general manager puts it on the manager, and the manager puts it on the coaches, and the coaches put it on the players, and everybody suffers."
That's pretty much the Royals. Owner David Glass raised the payroll to more than $80 million for the first time. In his seventh full season, Moore is expected to win for the first time. Yost has the most talented Royals team since 1994. The coaches know if Moore or Yost goes, they likely go, too. And the players don't want to waste the two years Shields has left on his contract, or the time Moustakas and Eric Hosmer still have reasonable salaries.
"This is a lot like '08," Shields said, and if this Royals team can be even a reasonable facsimile of the '08 Rays, this city would go nuts. "There's big-time similarities. We have the talent to win. In 2007 in Tampa, we had the talent to win and didn't. And then ..."
Then they went from 66 wins to 97 and lost to Philadelphia in the World Series. And ever since, the Rays have contended in the AL East despite payrolls one-third the size of the New York Yankees'. One great boom cycle of prospect development yielded this bounty of talent with continued great management. When the Shieldses of the world get too expensive or too close to free agency, flip 'em for Myers. It's a hand-to-mouth existence they happen to have perfected.
It forced Shields at 25 to anchor the Rays' 2007 staff as its elder. Inconceivable as that seems, it's true: Jason Hammel and Andy Sonnanstine were 24, Scott Kazmir and Edwin Jackson 23. Shields honed some of the techniques back then he applies to the clubhouse now. Around mid-spring, a few weeks after texting with Price, he started feeling the comfort level he had hoped to achieve. And soon thereafter he started to believe this team did indeed have the chemistry Moore had sought.
Shields, now 31, does not buy into the idea that winning creates chemistry. Baseball's great chicken-and-egg debate isn't even a debate to him.
"You can't create good chemistry in-season," he said. "I think it's fake. When you start losing, you might think, 'Oh, it's because we don't have good team chemistry.' Then you try too hard to make it. Chemistry is something that has to happen naturally. We worked really hard in spring training to create that. It's important to get our arms and bats in shape, but you have to know each other before the season starts or you can't be on the same page.
"When you have good chemistry, it brings the best out of every individual. Let's say I have a man on second and I want [second baseman Chris] Getz to move over two steps to the right. I can look at him and give him a head nod, and he knows exactly what I'm talking about. If he doesn't understand where I'm coming from, next thing you know I give up a hit in the 4-hole. Chemistry is thinking similarly, being one unit, really knowing each other."
Shields finds himself at the forefront of that, a responsibility he's happy to embrace. By the middle of summer, he figures, he'll have asserted himself enough that if ever this place is going to be like it was in Tampa Bay, he'll know.
"Everybody knows he's a really good pitcher and that he's got the best changeup in Major League Baseball," Perez said. "But there is more. He brings the energy. With him here ... it's different."
That it is. And for the better.
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