There was never a chance. No way was James Shields going to return to the Kansas City Royals. It was fun to dream about it, and the longer he remained on the market, the more plausible you could make that dream.

But in the end, the Royals were never going to bring him back.

That’s OK. As Sam Mellinger pointed out, the Royals played within the system that is stacked against them and they won. This is baseball in the 21st century. The Royals know the only way they can acquire a starting pitcher cut from the cloth of Shields is either through the draft or via trade. Sure, they can sign a free agent here or there, but that’s the point where you’re dumpster diving for an Edinson Volquez, or locking up cost-controlled veterans for the back of the rotation a la Jason Vargas or Jeremy Guthrie.

Mellinger points out, his contract is for $20 million more than the Royals have ever awarded a player. I would counter that it’s also $23 million more than the Padres have ever handed out. But the Padres could afford to dip their toe in the free agent pool. According to Baseball Reference, San Diego figures to have an Opening Day payroll around $88 million. AJ Preller is some kind of mad general managing scientist. (Quick, someone make a “Padres won the trade!” joke. What? It’s been done? Awwwww.)

The Royals aren’t adverse to the years. I think Dayton Moore and his staff see this as a benefit, actually, when they can control the costs of a player for multiple seasons. They signed Vargas for four years last winter. Omar Infante, too. But those guys are on a different tier from Shields. Although, I think they are rightfully wary of giving the years to an older starting pitcher. Vargas and Gil Meche (five years, remember?) were a couple of years younger than Shields when they signed with the Royals.

It’s the money that will forever be a sticking point. Could they have fit Shields onto a roster that already had an estimated payroll at around $112 million? I think they could have, but we know that was never going to happen. It would have taken some sort of a minor miracle. The Royals knew when they traded for Shields that they would get two years. They knew their young nucleus they were counting on would be entering their arbitration years and getting exponentially more expensive. Even if they had the foresight that their payroll would top $110 million for 2015, I don’t think they saw a way Shields fit into that budget.

We discuss this all the time, but it remains a salient point: Do the Royals spend their money in the best manner? Max Rieper at Royals Review has an interesting look at the new Royals and their salaries versus the departed (Shields, Billy Butler and Nori Aoki) and the dollars for 2015 are a push. Jeez. I didn’t want – or need – to see that. But there’s the mutual option game being played, and that’s relevant in that it gives the Royals flexibility going forward. It’s not just the dollars, it’s the years.

Which leads to the next question. Did the Royals misread the Shields market? Did they jump the gun, by handing out $20 million to Edinson Volquez? I don’t think they did. And I write that mainly because I don’t think anyone saw Shields lasting this long on the free agent market. The Royals had moved on from Shields early in the winter, and rightly so. Although Jeff Passan thinks that the Royals could have been in the mix, had Shields come to them with lower (i.e. more realistic) demands.

They found a player they believe in in Volquez, so they made an aggressive offer and signed him. Will it work? Who knows at this point. I do know that once they decided Shields’s demands – realistic or not – were too much for their budgets, they did the right thing and found an arm to add to the rotation.

Did Shields’s agents bungle his free agency? That’s what Jeff Passan thinks. Me? I’m not so sure.

Shields was the consensus number three starting pitcher on the market behind Max Scherzer and Jon Lester. The conventional wisdom held that Scherzer was going to be the last of the big three to sign because of his demands and his representation. It followed that Lester would set the Shields market. When Lester signed his six-year, $155 million deal with the Cubs, it seems that the Shields team would shoot for just under that mark.

Of course, even without the benefit of hindsight, that’s folly. Working against Shields is the perception he’s not a true “ace.” And perhaps more importantly isn’t a perception, it’s a fact – he’s older than Lester by two years. Just as important in my mind was his October performance, which was less than encouraging. And then there’s the fact the next year’s class of free agent starting pitchers is absolutely loaded. Loaded. Teams are probably more than willing to skip spending this year if it means bagging one of the top starters next winter.

On the issue of an “ace,” who cares? By any estimation, Shields was the third most desirable starting pitcher on the market and he’s going to make the third most money of those who signed new contracts this winter. Shields isn’t an elite pitcher, but he’s a damn good one, who stacks up against just about any starter in the game. If I ran a team, I’d certainly try to get him on the roster. At least for the next two seasons.

It turns out no team was willing to pay Shields past his age 36 season. Not for the big bucks he was seeking. Front offices are getting smarter with how they spend their money. Passan argues that had Shields lowered his demands early in the winter and asked for four years, that would have accelerated his process. That makes all kinds of sense. Hell, the bidding could have become so ferocious, maybe Shields could have squeezed a fifth year out of some team who decided they just had to have him. As it was, teams didn’t even consider him because they didn’t like the opening price.

In the end, Shields gets to pitch for a team in the National League, in the most pitcher-friendly park in the league, and close to his home. And he gets to cash checks totaling $75 million. If that’s bungling, sign me up.

I like the Shields contract with the Padres. It’s a good deal for both sides and gives them a shot to get into October. I’m not thrilled with four years, but I’d bet the team will get solid value out of the first three. And I like Shields on that team. Their defense… Yeah. Someone will need to catch the ball.

With Shields as the last of the remaining free agents tied to the qualifying offer, the 2015 draft order is officially set. The Royals have the 21st overall pick and the 33rd selection as compensation for losing Shields. They also have the 64th and 98th picks through the first three rounds.

Baseball America estimates the Royals draft pool will be around $7.5 million. That’s down from their allotment of $8.6 million in 2014 and $8.3 million in ’13, but it’s right in line with other teams from the AL Central.

Twins – $7,691,684

Indians – $7,528,625

Royals – $7,499,358

Tigers – $7,403,534

White Sox – $5,540,051

The Royals moved on a long time ago. The trade worked out marvelously for both the Royals and Shields and it may have set the blueprint for future moves. I know we’re supposed to declare a “winner” in a trade, but really I don’t give a damn. All I know is my team shipped a bundle of prospects for two pitchers and two years later my team was playing in the World Series. Sounds pretty good to me.