The Tampa Bay Rays clearly have a true ace in James Shields. "Big-Game James" has proved himself as one of the elite pitchers in baseball, leading the Rays outstanding starting rotation with an excellent 2011 season. Although Shields has made a name for himself in Tampa more than ever before, his future with the Rays is a big question.
Since the offseason began, Shields' name has flooded trade rumors in recognition that the Rays star pitcher could possibly be traded for a bat. Shields is also entering the final two club options of his contract during the next two years, making a potential trade even more likely.
Considering the Rays' current situation, it would take a lot of work to lock up Shields long-term. The Rays don't have a lot of money to spend on big-market players like Shields, and they also have plenty of pitching talent. When you put that fact into mind in addition to Shields having an extremely high trade value, a career-long tenure with the Rays doesn't seem probable.
Before we determine how the Rays can keep Shields in Tampa Bay, let's take a look at Shields' current contract:
As we can see from the picture (courtesy of spotrac.com), Shields has two more (of his three) club options left in his contract that he signed back in 2008. Just like in all multi-year club options, the player gets paid more by each year.
From what we see in Shields' previous contract, he would have to be paid more than $12 million per year, which is the amount he will make if the Rays exercise his option in 2014. So whether the Rays chose to re-sign Shields or renew his contract, he would probably be requesting over $13 million eventually.
Based on Shields' fabulous performance last season, he's definitely not earning the amount of money he deserves right now. A contract extension should be able to solve that problem for Shields. Although Shields can earn more when he is signed as a free agent, there are a few things that should make him eager to re-negotiate his contract with the Rays.
First of all, Shields would make more money in the next two seasons than he would with his old contract. With a renewed contract, Shields would be guaranteed with the highest pay of his professional career.
Another positive for Shields would be the financial security that a contract extension would provide for him and his family. Being a pitcher in his 30s, there is always the risk for injury. There is also the risk that a pitcher's effectiveness will decline as he ages, which the Rays would need to be aware of if they were to negotiate a major deal. If Shields is offered a good amount of guaranteed money that extends into his mid-30s, he would likely jump on it.
A contract extension seems like the best way to lock up Shields, but what kind of contract could we be looking at here?
Another AL East star pitcher, C.C. Sabathia, recently agreed to a five-year contract extension with the New York Yankees. His renewed contract probably serves as the best model of what a James Shields extension could look like. Both are star pitchers and are about the same age. Here are Sabathia's contract details below (courtesy of spotrac.com):
Obviously, the prices are not what we are looking at here, as Sabathia is paid by a huge-market team and Shields is playing for a very small-market team. However, Sabathia's new contract extension still makes a perfect example for what the Rays need to do to keep Shields.
Like Shields, Sabathia was also signed under a long-term deal before he extended his contract and was meeting (or exceeding) the financial expectations of the deal. In other words, he was underpaid (for a Yankee star player). If the Rays are interested in keeping Shields long-term, they're going to have to work out a similar deal to this.
Sabathia was given a five-year deal, including a vesting option for the sixth year (2017). A similar deal of five years guaranteed and one club option is really the best choice to keep Shields in Tampa Bay. As for the price, $70 million guaranteed through the five seasons sounds pretty reasonable.
I think he would except $14 million per year, including a $16 million vesting option in 2017. It's less than pitchers like Shields are getting paid in this league, but the Rays' cash is very limited. Also, I would assume that Shields would give the Rays a "Hometown Discount" if they were to negotiate a deal.
At the end of the day, signing Shields to a contract extension would definitely be a risk for the Rays. It'll be tough for Shields to repeat his incredible success that he had in 2011. Still, nobody can say that paying around $14 for an ace-type pitcher is not worth it.