White Sox fans beware: James Shields is back and ready for Opening Day

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White Sox pitcher James Shields reacts after giving up a two-run home run to the Red Sox’ Jackie Bradley Jr. in August in Boston. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Feeling good, White Sox fans? Caught up in the hope swirling around your team? Your lungs filled with the fresh air of a rebuild?

That’s excellent.

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In non-rebuild, non-invigorating news, James Shields likely will be your Opening Day starter.

Why did I have to go there? Because there can’t be progress without pain. Because I’m the wind beneath your wings. And because maybe, just maybe, Shields found something toward the end of last season that will make him a different pitcher in 2018.

Or not. That’s always a possibility.

The 36-year-old right-hander has become a punching bag for a large group of Sox fans. They see the $21 million he’ll make this season and the 5.99 ERA he carried around like an anvil the last two seasons with the Sox. Mostly, they see Fernando Tatis Jr., the 19-year-old infielder the Sox gave up in a 2016 trade that brought Shields from San Diego to Chicago. Baseball America ranks Tatis as the ninth-best minor-league prospect this season, and fans of a certain persuasion think Baseball America is like the Bible, only more divinely inspired.

So there are all sorts of reasons Shields could get a group stinkeye when the Sox open the season in Kansas City on March 29. He understands.

“I’m probably tougher on myself than any fan is on me,’’ he said. “Hopefully, they respect that. I have higher expectations on myself. I want to prove to myself that I’m still ready to rock.

“… The fans have been great. Obviously, when you’re getting booed every once in a while, it’s whatever, but I don’t really pay too much attention to that. I’ve worked really hard my whole entire career. I’m just going to go out there and pitch my game.’’

He wants fans to see the James Shields who had double-digit victories for nine straight seasons, not the James Shields who has gone 9-19 with the Sox. He wants them to see the pitcher who finished third in American League Cy Young voting in 2011.

They’d like to stop covering their eyes when he pitches.

He changed his arm angle in August and watched his ERA drop over his last 10 starts. Lest you think a lot of thought and preparation went into that decision, he said he made the change in the middle of a game in Boston. He threw one pitch with the altered angle “and it worked out pretty good so we just decided to do it the rest of the season.’’

He says he’ll try it again in spring training and see if it’s something that has staying power.

“I got some really good reviews and reactions to it,’’ he said. “I think the hitters were having a little tougher time with that arm angle. So we’ll check it out and see what happens.’’

The Sox’ camp will be filled with young players who represent the future: Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert. Alec Hansen. Dane Dunning. Shields would not seem to be part of that future, unless the future shows up at 3 p.m. for a 6 p.m. dinner reservation. The idea of the team shocking baseball by being competitive this season has been the talk of the clubhouse the past few days. It sounds like typical spring fever, a 95-loss team coming in out of the cold, but Shields isn’t apologizing for it.

“I like the challenge,’’ he said. “I’ve always liked the challenge. I said that when I was traded to K.C. (after the 2012 season) when they were dead last in the league in pitching, and we ended up being top five in the league the two years I was there. I love facing the challenge. I’m excited.’’

The Rays had the worst record in baseball in 2007 and went to the World Series the next season. Shields was on both teams, which is why tamping down his excitement about this year’s Sox is an exercise in futility.

“I don’t really believe in ‘it’s too early to win,’ ” he said. “These guys are very talented young men. If they put it together, something special could happen.’’

Baseball’s second wild card gives .500 teams hope, so if you’re looking for reasons to believe, even if they look like slivers of reasons right now, there’s one for the Sox. The Twins lost 103 games two years ago and earned a wild-card berth last season.

“No one expected them to win,’’ Shields said. “Baseball’s a great game. That’s why I love it. Because you never know.’’

I told Shields that he was riling up the populace with his playoff talk.

“Good. Why not, right?’’ he said. “We’re not here to lose. We’re definitely not here to lose, that’s for sure.’’

Actually, the Sox are here to lose a little more. The whole idea of a rebuild is to get high draft picks by losing. But don’t waste your breath telling Shields that. He can see Opening Day from here.


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