James Shields was always different. On a team built around its young rotation, Shields has been the outlier, a savvy veteran. It was his first start of 2012 that ended the Rays’ streak of 764 straight games started by a pitcher under the age of 30 years old. But the Rays never had a problem with it. He was “Big Game James,” the pitcher they could trust when it mattered most. But is that the case anymore? In 2010, Shields was terrible. In 2011, he was great, In 2012, he has struggled again. After pitching well in the 2008 postseason, Shields struggled in his lone starts in the 2010 and 2011 playoffs. Throughout the past several seasons, Shields has been the same pitcher, throwing the same arsenal of a fastball, his signature changeup, a curveball, and a cutter. But the results have been inconsistent. At times, he has looked like an ace that can put the team on his back. Other times, he looks like not a frontline pitcher, but at least an innings-eater who can be solid if not great most times on the mound and give the team length. But then we have also seen him completely fall apart. Instead of winning games for the Rays, we have seen him too often in 2012 lose games with disastrous outings. While all this has been happening, Shields’ peripherals statistics have remained strong and in some cases gotten better. Shields’ xFIP in 2012 is 3.47, which is the second best mark of his career to only 2012. Maybe Shields has been a victim of fluctuating luck. Maybe he’ll be fine moving forward. Or maybe people conveniently ignore the stats they don’t like.
We have talked about and ranted about the fact that Shields has completely gotten off his fastball and has used his secondary pitches at staggering rates. He has gotten tentative and has been afraid to go after hitters. Maybe all he needs is an adjustment and he’ll be able to get back to the pitcher we got used to seeing in 2011. Or maybe the league made an adjustment to him, and while he may not be as bad as his 4.52 ERA in 2012, he’ll never come close to approaching his 2.82 ERA from 2011 again. The reality is likely somewhere in between. James Shields almost certainly still has good years ahead of him. He’s 30 years old with a track record of success, and he’s a highly-sought out pitcher as the trade deadline approaches on July 31st. He could be traded and make the Rays look terrible by catching fire in the season’s final two months. We know he has it in him. But maybe that doesn’t matter. James Shields is not part of the future of the Rays.
It isn’t just Shields’ age. 30 is not that old- in fact the weighted average age of the entire Rays team is 29.9 years old. It really comes down to the money. Shields has two option years left on his contract after 2012: a 9 million dollar option in 2013 and an 12 million dollar option in 2014. That’s a large sum of money by the Rays standards, and even should the Rays hold onto Shields for those two years, they certainly could not afford him if he went on the open market. The Rays future lies with their young pitching. Shields isn’t a part of that anymore. The Rays contend in the present but look to build an even stronger team for the future. Shields won’t be in the picture for too much longer.
It seems that at some point, James Shields will be traded. He simply is not part of the long-term future of this team. Will it be before the 2012 trade deadline? The Rays have plenty of suitors even with the Angels out of the picture following their Zack Greinke acquisition, with the Rangers, Braves, Dodgers, Indians, and Cardinals all reportedly possessing some amount of interest in Shields. The question is when will be the right time. Could the Rays contend without Shields in the rotation? Part of whether the Rays will trade Shields is their confidence in pitchers such as Alex Cobb, Jeff Niemann (currently on the DL but scheduled to return in August), and Chris Archer (currently in Triple-A). But the other part of the picture is when the Rays will be able to make the most value in return. The Rays are hoping for maximum value in return for Shields. Could a team like the Rangers be desperate to respond to the Angels’ move to get Greinke and overpay the Rays for Shields? Or could the best option to be to wait until the offseason, when more teams could be possible suitors? We won’t know anything until the whirlwind of the last three days before the deadline is over.
James Shields has been arguably the greatest pitcher the Tampa Bay Rays have ever seen. He is tops among the franchise leaderboard in nearly every cumulative starting pitching category: wins, losses, innings pitched, games started, complete games, shutouts, strikeouts, and home runs allowed. Shields will be missed when he is gone. But the Rays don’t live in the past. They gameplan for the future. James Shields will be traded by the Rays. The only question is when.