We’re used to seeing players changing uniforms, but watching James Shields pitch against the Rays will take some getting used to.

When the history of the Tampa Bay Rays is written, James Shields will have his own fat chapter. Perhaps more than any other single player, he’s responsible for the franchise becoming one of the most efficient, admired and successful in the game.

Others—Stu Sternberg, Matt Silverman, Andrew Friedman—drew up the blueprint. Joe Maddon has brilliantly managed the roster and the games. Jim Hickey may be the best pitching coach on the planet. And obviously Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, B.J. Upton, David Price and plenty of others have been hugely important.

To average 92 victories over a five-year stretch in which the payroll has remained one of baseball’s lowest is an amazing accomplishment. The Rays, along with the Oakland A’s, have changed expectations in every city. Once upon a time, there was a correlation between baseball’s payroll rankings and its standings.

Now every team has a chance to compete. That’s why nine franchises have won the World Series the last 12 years, and their average payroll rank has been 10th. There’s a smaller margin for error with less money, but there’s still opportunity. Let’s not discount the importance of money. It makes everything easier. It allows a GM to take a more conventional route to filling roster sports instead of hoping to find lightning in a bottle in the bargain-basement bin.

Now about James Shields. Tampa Bay’s assembly line of pitchers began with his promotion to the Major Leagues in 2006. He was only a 16th-round draft pick in 2000, so it was clear some people doubted he’d make it.

What the Rays found out about him is that he had Major League stuff. He has a 92-mph fastball, an 89-mph cutter and a slider and a change-up. Beyond the stuff that can be measured, he has an enormous drive to succeed. He’s diligent in the weight room and in his work between starts. He’s driven to prepare and to attempt to find ways to exploit a hitter’s weakness.

From him, others followed. Because he was the senior guy, others understood what was expected of them. He showed the way. The Rays did a tremendous job bringing pitching talent into the organization, but Shields helped them understand what it meant to be a Major League pitcher.

With free agency approaching, the Rays traded him to the Royals during the off-season. But his legacy remains in David Price and Matt Moore and the others. He has done for the Royals what he’d done for the Rays. Royals GM Dayton Moore said he felt the impact of Shields’ professionalism on the first day of Spring Training.

It would be an amazing legacy if Shields can help get the Royals into the postseason. To have had the impact he has had on one organization is a pretty nice thing for the resume. To be able to do it twice would tell you how special he is. Anyway, he’s pitching against the Rays for the first time tonight.

As much as the Rays would have liked to have kept him, they’re in a financial position where they have to make tough calls. It’s painful at times, but they’re confident in the way they go about their business. And it has made this day of the regular season a bit more special.

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