October 2, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher James Shields (33) is congratulated by third baseman Evan Longoria (3) against the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field. Baltimore Orioles defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Is The Time Right for the Rays to Trade James Shields?

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We’ve been hearing nonstop about the Rays’ pitching depth- and how the Rays would be better served trading a starter and allocating their resources in a different way, specifically to improve their offense. Team after team has been linked to the Rays as a possible trade fit as pitching has become a tremendous commodity on the market. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports talked about how the value of the Rays’ pitchers is at an all-time high as quality pitching options are hard to find these days. And talks are certainly progressing towards a trade, with James Shields being the most likely player to be dealt. The Rays (rightfully) consider David Price a player who is essentially untouchable, but Shields, who will make 10.25 million dollars in 2013 and has just two more years under team control, is a much more attractive trade option for the Rays. In the ongoing poll on the right side of this site, 65% of the over 100 voters said that the Rays should trade Shields. And talks are actually progressing. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reports that the Rays are involved in 4-team blockbuster trade talks with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Cleveland Indians, and Texas Rangers with Shields a key player in those talks, and also that they have talked with the Rangers about a more conventional trade that would land Shields in Texas. That goes without saying that the Rays are still talking to the Royals about a possible deal built around Shields and Royals top prospect Wil Myers. It seems impossible to imagine the Rays without Shields after everything he has given the Rays the last six years, but trading Shields is something the Rays are seriously considering. Is trading Shields the best move for the Rays right now?

How much would the Rays lose in their rotation if they traded Shields? The Rays led baseball with a 3.34 ERA from their starters, and Shields’ ERA was actually above the team average at 3.52. However, Shields’ ERA was 2.81 in the second half and more importantly he led the Rays in innings pitched with 227.2. The Rays were 6th in baseball in terms of the innings their starters pitched and Shields was a major role in that. But at the same time, David Price went 211 innings and would have gone more if not for an aberrant shoulder issue that cost him a pair of starts in September. Shields finished 9th in baseball with 6.9 innings pitched per game started (minimum 20 starts), but Price was right behind him at 6.8 innings per start, which ranked 11th. The Rays were one of just two teams with two pitchers in the top 12 with the Phillies being the other. However, after Price you have to go all the way down to Alex Cobb at 73rd with 5.9 innings per start to find the next Rays starter. The last two qualifying Rays starters, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore, are down at 100th and 105th with 5.7 innings per start. (Hellickson’s numbers are skewed, however, by a three-start stretch in June where he was injured (first by shoulder fatigue then by a line drive hitting him), and taking those out, he jumps to 5.9 innings per start.) And among the Rays’ starters that didn’t make 20 starts, Jeff Niemann averaged just 5.6 innings in his 7 healthy starts but was at 5.9 in 2011 while Chris Archer was at 5.9 himself but the fact that he was at 5.7 at Triple-A (taking out a few starts where he was recovering from an oblique and a one-inning appearance right before he was called back to the Rays for September) can’t exactly inspire confidence that he’ll be a pitcher the Rays can rely on for much more than 5 innings per start. The point of this is that if you take out Shields, the Rays’ rotation would throw a lot less innings and put considerably more pressure on the bullpen. Is that such a bad thing? The Rays’ bullpen is great and pitchers like ex-starter Wade Davis can go multiple innings. And another thing is that expecting the Rays’ starters to virtually repeat their innings per start outputs from 2012 is disregarding the improvements the Rays’ young pitchers are bound to make.

Just looking at the Rays’ rotation without Shields, it completely lacks luster after David Price. Sure, Price is the ace, but who’s number two? Is it Hellickson? Joe Maddon had a very interesting quote to Roger Mooney of the Tampa Tribune the other day.

“He’s got all these attributes that works to his favor,” Maddon said. “Helli can be 200, 200plus. Everything’s got to break. We’ve got to watch him well. He has to work for it too. It has to be something he really wants to do. I think, if he truly wants to be that guy, it’s definitely within his ability, no question.

We talked before about Hellickson’s ability to take the next step as a starting pitcher thanks to the development of his curveball, and if he combines that with some better luck in terms of injuries after a year where he got hit by a ball in batting practice and got hit by a line drive, he could be a 200-inning pitcher. Hellickson did toss 189 innings in 2011 and him throwing 200 innings next season is certainly not an impossibility. His shoulder fatigue is a bit disconcerting, but he has little history of arm problems and that looks like an isolated incident. Hellickson has to miss more bats to be a number two starter, but he really showed flashes of being that type of pitcher in 2012 when his curveball was on, looking dominant for the first time. If the Rays believe Hellickson is ready to become a top-of-the-rotation type arm, it makes them much easier for them to weather the load of Shields being traded.

After Price and Hellickson, the Rays’ rotation would likely be Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Jeff Niemann with Chris Archer probably beginning the year at Triple-A or in the bullpen. Cobb looks like a strong number four and Niemann can certainly be a nice number five if he can stay healthy (and Archer will replace him if he’s not), but can Matt Moore be depended on as a number three starter at this point of his career? Moore’s stuff is electric and there’s a chance that he could pair with Price to give the Rays two overpowering lefties at the top of the rotation, but his control and command was very inconsistent in 2012 and he still has plenty of work to do in his development. That being said, Price went from a 4.42 ERA as a rookie in 2009 to a second place Cy Young finish in 2010, and the Rays know that Moore has the potential to do the same thing next year. Even if Moore remains enigmatic, Moore along with Cobb and Niemann would still be an above-average back of the rotation. The Rays’ 2013 rotation without Shields certainly has risk with the Rays needing Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore to step up, but it also has the potential to be even better than it was in 2012.

The Rays will have to weigh the risk in their rotation involved with losing Shields with the value they will receive in return for him. The Rays’ rotation may be fine without Shields, but if Shields had a good year to go with Price dominating again and Hellickson and Moore taking steps forward, the Rays’ rotation would be unbelievable and if the Rays got any offense they would surely win 95 or more games and likely the AL East. In a playoff series, teams would not have fun against Price, Hellickson, and Moore, but Shields is Big Game James and having him go in Game 2 would give the Rays an overbearing playoff pitching staff. Another factor is something that can’t be measured is Shields’ impact in the clubhouse. Shields is a veteran presence on an extremely young team and having him continue to mentor Price and the Rays’ other starters would certainly be in everyone’s best interest. But the Rays’ rotation is going to be well above-average next season and if the Rays could significantly improve their lineup in a Shields trade, the Rays aren’t going to hesitate for the sake of continuity. It will require major present and future value for a team to pry Shields from the Rays. They’re not going to trade him just because they have pitching depth. However, with teams desperate to acquire pitching and dangling players they never would have before to do so, the Rays could be simply waiting for the right offer to come along to deal Shields. Maybe it never comes- but the more this offseason has progressed, the more likely it has seemed that an offer landing Shields in another uniform wil indeed materialize.

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