Upton has most likely played his last game in Tampa Bay
This is the struggle of the Tampa Bay Rays. When they assemble talent, it eventually disperses throughout the league in free agency as they struggle to re-sign their players to multi-year contracts.
Carl Crawford left for Boston, BJ Upton is expected to command five years at over $10 million per year and even Jeff Keppinger is drawing significant free-agent attention.
So far, this has only negatively impacted the Tampa Bay batting order; however, it will eventually seep into their pitching staff unless they cash in some of their high end pitching (which they have a surplus of) for younger prospects.
Here are three different players that the Rays could deal this offseason.
Shields could net the Rays a middle-of-the-order hitter
Shields rumors have been in the works for a few seasons now as his contract comes closer to expiring and the Rays show that they are clearly incapable of locking him up long term.
The Rays are in desperate need of a big bat to drive in runs behind Evan Longoria in the middle of the order, but will not be able to afford one in free agency. The emergence of Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson, who are both under team control through at least 2016, makes dealing Shields easier to cope with.
Starting pitching is always the most valued asset among contending teams, many of whom don't have enough pitching but have too much hitting. Shields could be dealt to a team such as Texas, who could offer a package centered around first baseman Mike Olt.
The Rays have been hesitant to pull the trigger on Shields despite teams inquiring about him, but they would be wise to bring in an impact hitter for him this offseason. The team has a club option on him for the 2014 season, after which they will surely lose him to free agency.
Zobrist has become expendable for the Rays.
Zobrist can become a free agent after 2013 if the Rays choose not to pick up his options for the following two seasons.
Zobrist is 31 years old, but has value to many teams for his unique skill set. He can play almost anywhere on the field, but his real value comes at shortstop or second base, where he provides elite power, hitting 87 home runs over the past four seasons.
The Rays top hitting prospect, Hak-Ju Lee, should be ready for the MLB next season and Zobrist can be dealt for a greater need at another position (first base or outfield, perhaps?).
Zobrist's stock is as high as it will ever be right now, as his stats will not likely improve beyond his age-32 season. Tampa would be wise to cash in on him now.
Niemann is one of many back of the rotation innings eaters on the Rays' roster.
I list these three together because they all play extremely similar roles for the Rays and only one of them is likely to be dealt. The Rays have a surplus of starting pitching, so much so that two very capable starters in Wade Davis and Alex Cobb pitch out of their bullpen.
Jeff Niemann serves as the No. 5 starter, but teams could be interested in any of the three. Trading these players would not net the Rays a bona fide run producer, but it could fill a need with a role player at a very small relative cost.
Trading any of them could be bandaged by permanently bringing up Chris Archer to pitch out of the bullpen and filling a rotation spot with one of the remaining two. This move wouldn't hurt how the back of the rotation and the front of their bullpen is set up, but it could potentially bring in a left fielder that could relegate Sam Fuld to a backup role for which he is more suited.