Could the Rumored Rays-Nationals Trade Come Together?


Rays fans have gotten used to hearing trade rumors between the Rays and the Washington Nationals. For a long time, the rumors centered around B.J. Upton. Now, with Upton gone, having signed with the Atlanta Braves, that is no longer the case. But the rumors are back, and have already evolved into serious discussions with three major league players already named as possible pieces for a deal. Could this round of trade rumblings finally turn into a deal?

Jim Bowden of ESPN tweeted that the Rays were talking to the Nationals about trading a starting pitcher for outfielder/first baseman Mike Morse and middle infielder Danny Espinosa. Then CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman chimed in that the Nationals are interested in acquiring James Shields. Adding two and two together, suddenly we have the initial stages of a trade package. Even if this trade happens, it’s unlikely that Shields for Morse and Espinosa will be the final trade and there will likely be other players involved, but let’s look at these three players, how they fit with their current team and how they would fit with the team looking to acquire them, and whether a trade built around these players is actually feasible.

Note: Of course right as I was writing this, the Nationals signed Dan Haren to a 1-year deal, making a trade for Shields look extremely unlikely. But the ideas behind this trade could be pertinent in future deals for both of these teams (and I wasn’t going to just throw away this article), so I thought I might as well publish this anyway. And, as you’ll see in the next italicized paragraph, these talks may not be quite dead yet.

We’ll start with James Shields. Shields, who is about to turn 31 years old, is coming off a great season for the Rays, going 15-10 with a 3.52 ERA, an 8.8 K/9, a 2.3 BB/9, and a 1.0 HR/9 in 33 starts and 227.2 innings pitched. He struggled in the first half (4.17 ERA) before pitching as good as ever in the second half especially after the trade rumors around him stopped swirling, posting a 2.81 ERA that was right in line with his 2.82 ERA from his breakout 2011 season to go along with a ridiculous 114-24 strikeout to walk ratio in 108 innings pitched. Shields is super-durable, tossing 200 innings the last 6 seasons and leading the Rays in innings pitched in five of those seasons. Shields is a stabilizing veteran presence in the young Rays rotation and has played a huge role to the Rays’ success between his pitching and his presence in the clubhouse. The main reason to trade him is money- he will make 10.25 million dollars in 2012 and 12 million dollars if his 2014 option is exercised and the Rays have cheaper options ready to step into the rotation when Shields departs. Even then, the Rays aren’t going to trade arguably the greatest pitcher in franchise history in Shields unless they can get a significant package of players in return that will allow them to fill their needs for 2013 and provide them with enough future value to improve their team in the long-term even as they move forward without him.

Why are the Nationals interested in Shields? They led the National League in ERA, finishing second in baseball to only the Rays and also finished second to only the Rays in starter’s ERA. Edwin Jackson is a free agent, but his 10-11 record and 4.03 ERA can’t be that hard to replace. However, the Nationals had a major issue with their rotation in 2012: not a single one of their starting pitchers went over 200 innings. Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann just missed, finishing at 199.1 and 195.2 innings pitched respectively, but the Nationals would love to add a consistent veteran presence to their rotation who they can depend on for 7 innings just about every time out (Shields averaged 6.89 innings pitched per start in 2012). The Nationals also entered the 2012 Postseason with basically no playoff experience among their starters and it would be a huge luxury for them to start Big Game James Shields in Game 2 of a series. The Nationals won’t go crazy to complete their rotation with a pitcher like Shields, but they’re definitely interested in acquiring a starter and Shields could be exactly the type of pitcher they’re looking for.

Mike Morse, who will turn 31 in March, is coming off a 2012 season where he was out until June with a shoulder strain and then played OK when he came back, managing a .291/.321/.470 line (112 OPS+) with 18 homers and 62 RBI in 102 games and 430 plate appearances. That came one year after Morse managed a .303/.360/.550 line (147 OPS+) with 31 homers for the Nationals in 146 games and 575 plate appearances in 2011. Morse has proven himself to be a great power hitter who also makes enough contact to hit for a high average, managing a .296/.345/.516 line in 1298 plate appearances over the past three seasons with 25 home runs per 500 plate appearances. The issue for Morse at the plate is a lack of plate discipline as he struck out 287 times versus just 74 walks over that span, striking out in 22.1% of his plate appearances while walking in just 5.7%. Morse has enough power to compensate for that, but it certainly reduces his overall value as it lowers his contribution to the team and puts his ability to continue hitting for a high average at least somewhat in question. Morse really has to hit because he doesn’t do anything else. He can play left field and first base but is well below-average in left field (-20.4 UZR/150 in 989.1 innings) and sub-par at first base as well (-3.6 UZR/150 in 872.2 innings), and more importantly, he has injury problems. Morse was healthy in 2011, but he had his shoulder problem in 2012 and missed time with a calf strain in 2010 and had surgery on his other shoulder to limit him to just 5 games back in 2008. And finally, Morse has just one more year under contract, making 6.75 million dollars in 2013 before becoming a free agent. Morse’s combination of power and hitting for a high average makes him an interesting trade target, but his injury issues, defense, and years under team control really limit his value. The Nationals don’t necessarily need him next season and could very well trade him- they have Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, and Denard Span in the outfield for 2013 and they could re-sign Adam LaRoche to play first base- but he would be a big part of their lineup should they keep him next season. The Rays, on the other hand, would be interested in Morse- maybe using him at DH could keep him healthy- but he definitely cannot be the only headlining piece in a deal for Shields between all the problems surrounding his game.

Danny Espinosa, who will turn 26 in April, had a very interesting season in 2012 as the Nationals’ primary second baseman, posting a .247/.315/.402 line, just a 94 OPS+, but with 37 doubles, 17 homers, 56 RBI, and 20 of 26 stolen base attempts in 160 games and 658 plate appearances. His major issue at the plate was strikeouts- he struck out 189 times, most in the National League, while walking just 46 times. However, Espinosa has power, speed, and even great defense as he has managed a 5.2 UZR/150 in 2674 innings at second base and also good defense in a small sample at shortstop (21.6 UZR/150 but in just 327 defensive innings). Espinosa is a flawed player- his pitch recognition is well below average and he swings at way too many breaking pitches out of the zone- but he does everything else well and the Nationals appreciate his contributions to their team in the lower part of their lineup, on the basepaths, and in the field. He’s also under team control for four more seasons, although the Nationals could afford to trade him because of the presence of Steve Lombardozzi. The Rays don’t need a second baseman right now, but they could certainly use a player with Espinosa’s talents manning shortstop for them right now (which would allow them to move Ben Zobrist to right field). Once again, though, Espinosa has key issues in his game, and even him and Morse would be just the beginning of an offer for Shields.

A trade involving James Shields, Mike Morse, and Danny Espinosa could really make sense for both the Rays and Nationals. However, the Nationals would have to give up Morse and Espinosa and maybe even a couple good prospects to make this deal happen and considering how great the Nationals’ rotation is already, it doesn’t make much sense for them to give the Rays the type of offer they’re looking for and they’re more likely to pursue a lower-profile 5th starter option. The current rumor is interesting, but like the ones before it, there are some clear flaws that make a deal extremely unlikely to happen. Most rumors stay simply rumors. This seems bound to be one of those.*

*After the acquisition of Haren, could the Nationals possibly make this deal happen by trading Morse, Espinosa, Ross Detwiler and a prospect for Shields? That seems pretty doubtful- this doesn’t look like it’s happening- but the signing of Haren gives the Nationals the pitching depth they need to potentially trade another starting pitcher in a deal for Shields, and if the Rays like Detwiler enough this isn’t all that crazy. Stay tuned. The talks between the Rays and Nationals may very well be dead, but the possibility for a deal still exists.