James Shields embracing role as mentor to young White Sox pitchers

Chris Kuc, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Baseball

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Michael Kopech stood in the outfield on Field No. 1 at Camelback Ranch and listened intently while James Shields showed the White Sox's top pitching prospect various grips and arm angles for throwing a changeup.

It was a teaching moment between players, one a 21-year-old phenom with one of the brightest futures in baseball and the other a 36-year-old veteran who has been through his share of battles during 12 big-league seasons.

As an elder statesman on the Sox, Shields didn't have to be there. He could have completed his daily work and gone about his business. Instead, he decided to dispense some knowledge.

"He's my teammate, you know?" Shields said Wednesday. "I don't really know anything different. He was asking me about my changeup and we were working on his. I'm just looking after him."

The young fireballer appreciates the mentoring.

"He's one of the very few vets we have in this clubhouse, so the fact that he wants to help us out is huge for us young guys," Kopech said. "I've seen the success he's had at the big-league level and with his changeup, and the fact that he wants to take the knowledge over to me means a lot to me."

While it remains to be seen what impact Shields will have in the rotation this season, it's clear he's having a productive spring training -- even if he isn't scheduled to make his Cactus League debut until Thursday against the Rangers in Surprise, Ariz.

"You get guys who have been in the game a long time and you want them to be able to relate to the younger guys and share their experiences," manager Rick Renteria said. "(Veterans) have a lot of insight to share, especially for the young men who are continuing to develop and learn what it is to be in the big leagues."

Teaching his younger teammates about the intricacies of the game isn't the only thing Shields hopes to accomplish this season. The right-hander has been working on the back fields at Camelback in an effort to improve upon his 2017 season, which he finished at 5-7 with a 5.23 ERA. A midseason shift to a lower arm angle led to a strong September, when Shields won three of his final four starts, and that has been a focus this spring.

"It's a work in progress," Shields said. "It seemed to work out at the end of the season last year, and we're going to try to go with it."

Could finding a comfort zone with the angle help resurrect a career that has seen Shields struggle since joining the Sox in a June 4, 2016, trade with the Padres?

"I hope so," Shields said. "At the end of the day, I'm going out there to fight every five days ... and kind of bulldog it out. That's how I pitch.

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"As a veteran who has been doing it a long time, I have high expectations for myself every year. My goal is to get some wins for this ballclub."

General manager Rick Hahn has taken heat for acquiring Shields for a then-unknown teenager, infielder Fernando Tatis Jr., who has since blossomed into a top-10 prospect.

With hindsight having crystal-clear vision, Hahn instead focuses on the benefits Shields brings to the Sox.

"He plays a big role in our clubhouse," Hahn said. "A lot of these young pitchers will tell you stories about James spending time with them, whether it was in Charlotte while he was on rehab or in the last several weeks.

"From a between-the-lines standpoint, he's a veteran who knows on a certain day, we may need him to eat innings regardless of the results. He's willing to do what's best for the team and development of players around him. He found a degree of greater success with alteration of arm angle, and that will continue this year. He'll provide a stabilizing presence in our rotation."

Shields said he recognizes fans' frustrations "because I didn't get the job done last season," but that is not his major focus.

"I know what I need to do, and hopefully they embrace me," Shields said. "I work hard every five days. We're in this game for the fans, but I can't worry about all of that. I have to worry about my job on the field and get it done."

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