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James Shields is the perfect pitcher at the perfect time

The Royals knew what they were getting when they dealt for Shields, and are set to finally reap the benefits.

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James Shields is a rarity who merits appreciation, especially within the history of Royals pitching. They haven't had many good pitchers on their team in the years since they last made the playoffs, so Shields is something of a revelation for the club, and has been since he came through trade before 2013. Back in 1985, when Kansas City defeated the Cardinals in the World Series, they had Bret Saberhagen, Danny Jackson, and Charlie Leibrandt. Before they totally lost their relevance as a competitive team in the 90s, they had David Cone and Kevin Appier. Pre-Shields, Zack Greinke was in town, but he was alone: decades of rotation and pitching prospect futility kept the Royals from being anything but a joke, but that's all changed during Shields' tenure.

He's not alone, of course. The Royals added Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas over the last two seasons so that the back-end of the rotation could at least have a chance at being productive and useful, and the emergence of a pair of kids in Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy has also made all the difference in making the modern Royals' as pitching rich as their ancestors. Shields is the best of the bunch, though, the veteran in his early 30s acquired because he was a known quantity, a workhorse who, almost without interruption, has dominated since becoming a big-league starter. He had worked with young pitchers before in Tampa Bay, and has a reputation as being valuable for what he can bring to the table for them in the clubhouse: given the Royals' inability to develop their pitching prospects effectively over the last couple of decades, every little bit helps.

Shields has a 128 ERA+, is leading the AL in starts with 31, and has averaged 6-2/3 innings per outing. He led the American League in innings and starts last season while producing a 131 ERA+, and came in just 11th for the Cy Young for his efforts: the voters never have cared much for Shields, despite a career full of seasons like these. He came in third for the Cy back in 2011, when he threw 249 innings and posted his career-best 134 ERA+, but other than that, it's been all quiet. Despite owning an ERA+ of at least 117 (and as high as 134) in five of his last eight seasons, despite averaging 221 innings per season since his first full year in 2007, Shields has made just one All-Star team.

Don't be fooled, though: just because the writers and the fans don't seem to grasp his qualities doesn't mean the game itself does not. Shields is going to get paid for the same reason he was part of a major trade just a couple of years ago: he's a proven veteran who has never hit the disabled list in his major-league career, has been one of the game's best pitchers since evolving in his late-20s following the one disastrous season he's had, and is as much of a lock to throw high-quality innings -- and a lot of them -- as anyone.

Photo credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

This is who and what the Royals wanted when they gave up Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi, two pieces of their future, because they wanted to succeed in the present. They didn't go far enough in 2013 to justify the move, because they left the back-end of their rotation a Bruce Chen-like mess, and Wade Davis, who came over with Shields, was expected to fix that even though he had been spending his time in Tampa Bay proving he belonged in relief. Predictably, Davis struggled, the Royals won their most disappointing 86 games in recent memory because they couldn't plug the holes they started the season with, and Shields' efforts were wasted while Myers won himself a Rookie of the Year award and helped the Rays along to the playoffs.

General manager Dayton Moore has deserved scorn for much of the prolonged Royals' rebuilding, but for once he deserves credit for realizing that he didn't go far enough in 2013 with the Shields' deal alone. Rather than hope for a better second attempt, Moore added Vargas, who is built for the pitcher-friendly parks of the AL Central, to round out the rotation. He promoted Ventura to the bigs permanently, and gave Duffy, who had recovered from Tommy John surgery, the chance to keep the likes of Chen out of the rotation once again. Davis was put back in the pen where he belonged in the first place, and the lineup holes at second base and right field were finally addressed by putting literally anyone besides Chris Getz and Jeff Francoeur in those spots. A year had already been wasted, but the Royals were going to make a go at October for real heading into 2014, the final season of Shields' deal.

Thanks to the growth and progress of both Duffy and Ventura, the Royals will still be in a good place after this season, whether it ends with a playoff berth or a World Series appearance or victory or none of the above. With Shields in tow, though, their best chance is right now, especially if Duffy's shoulder heals up before season's end. He's done his part down the stretch, posting a 2.08 ERA since July 7 over 13 starts that have helped put -- and keep -- the Royals in first place in the AL Central. He has a few more to go, though, and if all goes well, he'll get his turn in October, too -- just like the Royals envisioned when they traded their future for the present in the first place.