The White Sox have at least one spot to fill in their starting rotation this offseason, and though they're not expected to pick up James Shields' pricey option, there's a way to keep that number at one.
Even if they don't keep Shields on his current contract, they could bring him back on a new one. It's not a bad idea considering his reliability in 2018, by far his best campaign in a White Sox uniform. He threw 204.2 innings — one of just 13 big league pitchers to log at least 200 innings this year — and racked up 19 quality starts.
But Shields' biggest value for the rebuilding White Sox could be his impact in the clubhouse. The elder statesman on a young-and-getting-younger team is an important role.
Just ask Lucas Giolito, whose locker was next to Shields' all season, what Shields meant to him, personally.
"I don’t have enough good things to say about him as a teammate, as a player," Giolito said before the White Sox wrapped up the regular season. "I’ve been learning so much from him all throughout the season. Just a great veteran presence, not only for starting pitchers but for the entire team. Super laid back, relaxed, always having a good time, always a smile on his face.
"Just the conversations we had about pitching, about starting pitching. What I’ve learned from him throughout the year when it comes to managing pitch count, getting deep into the game. That’s his main thing, he throws 200 innings almost every season. I wish that I had it all on a tape recorder so I could kind of take it with me. Just so much information I’ve learned, and I’m really appreciative of, my locker’s right next to him, being able to learn from him and see what he does."
General manager Rick Hahn stated that the White Sox will be making some additions to their pitching staff this offseason, not surprising considering that Tommy John surgery knocked Michael Kopech out for the entirety of the 2019 campaign. The White Sox have options when it comes to filling his spot and the one that would be potentially vacated by Shields. They could add a couple one-year fill-ins and wait until Kopech is healthy and Dylan Cease joins the rotation for the 2020 season. Or they could add a pitcher or two on longer term deals who could provide a safety net for the eventual growing pains during a 2020 or 2021 season where the White Sox would potentially be contenders.
If they chose the former, though, how many available pitchers would safer bets than Shields? If the 2019 season is expected to be another in which the White Sox aren't making a run at a playoff spot, why not bring back someone who is known to have a positive effect on the young players, the future of the franchise, in the clubhouse? And then there's the reliability of 200 innings and almost 20 quality starts to go along with all that.
Regardless of whether it's Shields or not, though, Giolito said that having that veteran role model is important.
"I think it’s really important to have veterans that help the younger guys, help steer them in the right direction and show them what it is to be a professional, to be a big leaguer," he said. "There’s a lot of things you have to learn on your own, and then there’s a lot of things your teammates can help you with. I’d say having a guy like that is very valuable."
There are surely other veterans out there who could fill such a role for these White Sox. But they know that Shields can do it. After spending the season next to Giolito, Shields requested that Kopech's locker be put next to his when Kopech arrived from Triple-A Charlotte. Who knows how much the recovering Kopech will be in Chicago next season, but he could receive the same treatment Shields gave Giolito this season. Not to mention that Giolito himself will still be developing. And perhaps Cease could make his way to the South Side before the end of 2019.
Much like the White Sox have praised Jose Abreu for his off-the-field contributions and how important they are to helping the future of the team develop, Shields provided a similar thing this past season. Could he do it again next season? That's up to the White Sox.