The Rays have been a very competitive team for about four years now, but they missed out on the playoffs last season and have a conundrum on their hands concerning their star pitcher James Shields. Pitching was the unquestionable strength of a team that won 90 games in 2012, so the question of Shields' value will be asked.
The Yankees seem to have a stranglehold on the A.L. East and the Orioles are rising quickly, so the Rays must make an important decision. Should Shields be part of the future or should he be jettisoned for more important skill players?
In Tampa Bay, the Rays must seriously consider trading the star right-hander or risk falling even further behind in one of baseball's most competitive divisions.
Shields is a solid pitcher, but the Rays have arguably the best pitching staff in the league.
There are several teams that would love Shields' services, but that doesn't mean that he's an absolute stud. He has name value, but he's not even one of the best pitchers on his own team.
The Rays had the No. 1 earned run average in all of baseball last year, clocking in at a superb 3.19 runs per nine innings. Shields came in at a respectable 3.52, but that wasn't even second best on the club.
The Rays have a truckload of young arms that are itching to make a big impact at the major league level, starting with Matt Moore (23 years old) and Jeremy Hellickson (25), both of whom had huge roles in helping Tampa Bay make a playoff push at the end of the year.
There are also prospects in the minor leagues, such as Taylor Guerrieri and Chris Archer, who should make some noise as they improve.
Shields is a solid pitcher, but that's about it. He's probably not worth all the money the Rays will pay him ($9 million in 2013) and his past success will almost certainly cause a team to jump and trade a good player or two for him. At the very least, the Rays could grab some promising prospects.
Shields is 30 years old and doesn't seem to be getting any better. It would behoove the Rays to trade him, if anything because his name value will make some team want him. There's no question they have the ability to trade him. It's more a question of whether they can execute the trade before he possibly hits free agency in 2014.
Evan Longoria is one of the few dependable hitters in the Rays' lineup.
As well as the Rays pitched last season, they were ultimately undone by an offense that simply couldn't get anything going. Tampa Bay ranked 18th in runs scored and 27th in batting average, leading to many low-scoring games that had them on the wrong end of several close outcomes.
At no point was the offensive ineptitude more evident than on August 15, 2012. The Seattle Mariners' Felix Hernandez pitched the 23rd perfect game in MLB history, adding another bit of unfortunate history to the Rays' ledger. It was the third perfect game pitched against the Rays in three years. Obviously, hitting has been a problem in Tampa for quite a while.
This leads to another reason why Shields should be traded this offseason. Trading pitchers for position players is never an exact science or a common occurrence, but the Rays could benefit greatly from unloading Shields for a big bat. The chances of that aren't very likely, but losing Shields certainly wouldn't hurt as much as getting a good hitter would help.
The Rays have two or three legitimate threats in their lineup. That is simply an unsustainable path for a team that wants to be a perennial playoff contender. It's also bad news due to the fact that the Yankees, Orioles, Red Sox and Blue Jays all ranked in the top 15 in the league in runs scored.
Shields isn't the most important player on the team. He's replaceable. He's also slowing down, as evidenced by his numbers over the last few seasons. Trading him for a solid bat isn't just an option, it should be considered a necessity.
Shields has had a solid career, but it was only two years ago when he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball.
Who is James Shields? Is he the pitcher with the 3.89 career ERA, who's averaged 14 wins per season over his career? Or is he the guy who was arguably the worst pitcher in baseball in 2010?
No matter what you think about Shields, you can't deny that he was unequivocally terrible in 2010. He managed to win 13 games despite a 5.18 ERA in 33 starts. He led the league in hits allowed (246), earned runs (117), and home runs (34), three categories that no pitcher ever wants to lead the league in.
Shields was lucky it wasn't a contract year, because he would have made next to nothing on the free agent market. He made a significant improvement the following year, but the Rays should seriously question whether or not they want to keep a pitcher on their roster who has had a season that terrible.
Shields' career numbers are solid but it's hard to justify building a team with a pitcher who has demonstrated marked inconsistency.
Shields has had enough good years to fool a team into thinking he could be a valuable asset, which is why the Rays would benefit greatly from trading him this year. If he has another bad season in 2013, they'll either lose him in free agency for nothing or be stuck paying an option year to a guy who is well past the prime of his career.
Shields' career ERA is respectable but it is buoyed by his terrific 2011 season—the only truly great year of his career.
The only reason that Shields has stayed relevant in the majors after his dismal 2010 is because he came back with a vengeance in 2011. After posting an ERA over 5.00, he went 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA and led the league with 11 complete games.
Of course, that doesn't mean he's a world-beater.
In fact, there are many reasons to believe that 2011 was nothing more than a fluke. It was the only year of his career where his posted an ERA below 3.50 and he had six more complete games in that one season than he had in his previous five. He struck out over 200 batters for the first time, and allowed under 200 hits for the first time as well.
This could be chalked up to Shields finally "figuring it out," but his numbers last season regressed to the mean and could mean that he peaked. If that's the case, Shields has nowhere to go but down.
Shields may have saved his career in 2011, and he needed to do after a terrible 2010. But there's no reason to believe that he'll perform anywhere near that level ever again. The Rays should trade him while 2010 is still fresh in the minds of general managers around the league. If they don't, they could be missing out on a nice package that could push them over the top in the coming years.
The Rays have a $12 million club option on Shields in 2014, but what if he's not worth the investment?
One of the biggest challenges a general manager faces in any sport is the dilemma of when to trade a star player. Do you trade him early on and get solid value in return, or do you wait, hope the star can make you better and risk losing him for nothing when he hits the free agent market?
The Rays are facing that very situation with James Shields. Fortunately for them, his career numbers should make the decision easier.
Shields is a free agent in 2014, pending a $12 million club option that the Rays seem unlikely to pay unless he has a superb season in 2013. If he isn't traded before then, he'll hit the open market and the Rays will miss out on getting a player or two in return for him.
That's what makes this offseason so important. Shields was serviceable last year and was stellar in 2011, meaning that he has very good value. There are a bunch of teams around the league who could use an extra arm to bolster their rotations (such as the Yankees and Nationals). Tampa Bay could really miss out if they don't shop Shields around.
The other aspect is that if Shields has a terrible year in 2013, the Rays will probably try to trade him, but will get significantly less than they could get if they traded him now.
It would be very smart for the Rays to think about trading Shields. They may think he has value to their prospective run to the playoffs in 2013, but unloading him will pay huge dividends for the future.