Saturday July 23, 2011
MLB reports: We are now only eight days away from the MLB non-waiver trade deadline and the rumors continue to fly fast and furious. Along with the Carlos Beltran and Heath Bell sweepstakes, the names Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Willingham, Brandon League, Hunter Pence and Hiroki Kuroda have been tossed around as possible candidates to be moved next week. Another big time name has recently been thrown into the mix that we will be looking at today. James Shields, “big game James”, one of the top starting pitchers on the Tampa Bay Rays may very well be playing for a new team very soon. The Cincinnati Reds are apparently calling and with big prospect bats sitting on the farm, the Reds may very well have the necessary bait to haul in one of the biggest fishes on the trade market.
The 29-year old James Shields was drafted by the Rays in the 16th round of the 2000 MLB draft. Shields made his major league debut in 2006. Here is a quick rundown of his lifetime statistics:
|162 Game Avg.||13||12||4.02||224||227||51||188||1.244|
A definite innings-eater, James pitched almost 1000 innings over his first five seasons, making him one of the most consistent and reliable pitchers in the game. A lack of run support has definitely hurt Shields over the years, as he had the numbers to obtain more wins had the Rays offense been able to support him better. I have watched too many instances of Shields pitching complete or near complete game losses, despite only giving up 2-3 runs per game. 2009 and 2010 were not kind to James in some ways, as some analysts viewed Shields as having hit his peak and starting to decline. Going into 2011, nobody knew what James Shields the Rays would be getting. The steady ace that the team enjoyed for the majority of his career or the 2010 inconsistent version. Looking at Shields at the halfway mark of the season, he is enjoying by far his greatest season in the majors. A sparkling 2.53 ERA and 1.011 WHIP, Shields has been everything that the Rays could have expected more. But with success comes many questions, with the most pertinent being what the Rays should do with James.
The whispers and talk has been growing by the day that the Rays may be looking to move Shields by July 31st. The Reds have been the team most linked to the Rays, given their desire to bolster their rotation and the deep farm of prospects they can offer the Rays. The Reds are sitting on some of the top prospects in the game that are currently blocked at the major league level. Yonder Alonso, 1B/OF is considered one of the best hitters not at the major league level. Alonso would represent the centerpiece of a potential Shields deal. Born in Cuba and having attended the University of Miami, Alonso is often compared to his friend Alex Rodriguez, based on his combination of power and patience at the plate. Not bad company at all. The 24-year old Alonso was drafted 7th overall in the 2008 draft by the Reds and has quickly advanced in their system. Currently in AAA, Alonso sits at a .297 AVG, .871 OPS, with 12 home runs and 46/59 BB/K. The Rays, desperately in need of bats, currently have Casey Kotchman manning first. Alonso would be a perfect fit in taking over the first base job for the next decade. He is a special hitter that does not come along very often. While a pitcher of Shields stature is not easy to replace, the Rays would be filling a huge void in their lineup by adding Alonso. Dealing from strength to fill a need is smart baseball management and the reason why we are discussing the trade of Shields today.
In addition to acquiring Yonder Alonso, the Rays would be adding a number one catcher to their system in either Yasmani Grandal or Devin Mesoraco. I have seen both names thrown around, but my gut is that the Rays will end up receiving Grandal. Mesoraco was featured by us back in June. The likely Reds catcher of the future, Mesoraco is expected to get the call either this year or next at the latest to replace incumbent Ramon Hernandez. With a solid backup in Ryan Hanigan, the Reds have an abundance of catchers, a strength considering that few major league teams have potential superstar backstops playing in their lower levels. The 22-year old Grandal was born in Cuba and played in Miami, similar to Alonso. Drafted 12th overall in the 2010 MLB draft, Grandal recently got the call to AA. Mesoraco on the other hand, is 23-years of age and was drafted 15th overall by the Reds in the 2007 MLB draft. Mesoraco is back for his second tour of duty in AAA, hitting a solid .309 and .895 OPS, with 10 home runs and 54 RBIs. After battling injuries in his career, Mesoraco hit a combined 26 home runs over 3 levels last season and has not slowed down since. The Rays would be thrilled to receive Mesoraco in a Shields trade, but Grandal is considered by many to actually be the more talented backstop. A win-win either way for Tampa Bay.
But why trade Shields and especially, why now? Many Rays fans are asking themselves those questions right now. On the surface, Shields and the Rays look like a perfect fit. He is young and still in the prime of his career. Shields has proven to be healthy and durable since joining the Rays. He is signed through this year, with team friendly options through 2014 at $7, $9 and $12 million per year respectively from 2012-14. In baseball they say you can never have too much pitching. If that is the case, then some feel the Rays should consider stockpiling their pitchers and building their team from strength. But that is a narrow view of major league teams and how they operate. Let’s take a look at our five top reasons for the Rays to trade James Shields right now:
1) Sell at the Peak
You never know what the future will bring, so sometimes it is important to live in the moment. Shields, while a steady and consistent pitcher, is currently pitching at the highest level of his career. The Rays will need to determine if he has truly broken out or merely playing above his head. The value for Shields may never get higher than it is today. As well, teams contending for the playoffs may be willing to pay more at the deadline than the offseason for Shields. The Rays, if feeling especially lucky, could request the addition of either Mike Leake or Travis Wood to the trade mix from the Reds.
2) Numbers Game: Rotation Log Jam
The Rays have been known for acquiring, developing and stockpiling pitchers in their system. This past offseason was no different, as the Rays traded away top starter Matt Garza to the Cubs for a package of prospects, including Christopher Archer and Sam Fuld. With Jeremy Hellickson ready, willing and able to join the big club, the Rays needed to clear room for their next future star pitcher. Hellickson, combined with David Price, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann form a formidable one through four punch in the rotation. Based on their age and salaries, none of these starters will likely be going anywhere soon. While Alex Cobb has been brought in for temporary measure to the majors, Matt Moore just got the call to join AAA Durham in anticipation of joining the Rays rotation soon. Moore, one of the top-five pitching prospects in baseball, will not likely be kept on the farm too long given his dominance over minor league hitters to-date. That is how the baseball system works. Prospects are developed and either traded for veterans or take over for departed veterans from major league teams. As the Rays have no intention of trading Moore, a spot will have to open up for him. Unfortunately for James Shields, he is the veteran most likely to go. From there, it will only be a matter of time before Archer is ready to join the big club and the cycle will continue.
3) Dollars and Cents
It is no secret that the Rays are on a very tight budget. Low attendance figures, despite continued recent major league success including a World Series appearance in 2008, has meant that the Rays cannot afford to hang onto high priced veterans. Shown the door in recent years were Carlos Pena, Matt Garza and Rafael Soriano, among others for financial considerations. While James may have what is considered a team friendly contract, paying him close to $10 million or so per year for each of the next three seasons does not work for the Rays budget. Moore, combined with Alonso and Grandal, would fill three positions for the Rays at a combined salary that will be a fraction of what Shields makes. In other words, Shields is a luxury that the Rays cannot afford and can fill quite adequately within at a cheaper cost. While we do not like to think about the economics of the game, it can drive roster decisions on the same level as talent and ability.
4) Innings- Wear and Tear
James Shields is starting to enter a zone that many MLB teams dread. The 200-innings per season for over five seasons club. While an informal group, there has been much talk in baseball circles that most pitchers after their first 1000 innings pitched have a high risk of injuries and decline. Pitchers like Brandon Webb and to a lesser extent Ben Sheets, are shown as examples of modern pitchers that have arm/shoulder problems after pitching many major league innings over a span of 5+ years. While Shields has not shown any risks yet of developing injuries, his numbers going into this season were of concern for the Rays. So while Shields is having a Cy Young caliber season, the Rays may be fearful that he will be susceptible to injuries or declining performance very soon.
5) Pitchers Need Run Support
In the same way a fast car needs a powerful engine and reliable tires, a major league team needs both offense and strong pitching. The current build of the Rays is starting to mirror the San Francisco Giants. Great young pitching but not enough hitting. The Rays can stockpile as much pitching as they like, but if they cannot score runs they will have a difficult time making the playoffs, let alone win a World Series title. Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal are two superstar bats in the making that the Rays desperately need and do not have in their own system. The expression goes that teams “develop pitching and buy bats.” In this case, the Rays will be taking to buying the bats that they themselves cannot produce. With a starting lineup of nine hitters, that Rays will be instantly filling over 20% of their lineup by way of this trade. The hit the rotation by losing Shields would be absorbed by the addition of Matt Moore to the major league club. But the boost to the team’s offense as a result of the addition of Alonso and Grandal is invaluable.
Verdict: The bottom line is that the Tampa Bay Rays are in a quandary. James Shields is the heart and soul of their pitching staff, the go-to guy who has earned his nickname of “big game.” But as the most expensive starter on the staff, with the team’s top prospect almost ready to receive the call to the show and the team desperately needing good young hitting, the Rays have no choice but to consider moving Shields at the trade deadline. As the team is still in contention, management will have to be careful of not sending a message that they are throwing in the towel on the season. But to get the biggest reward, the team will have to pay a big price. It will be difficult in the short-term to accept the trade of James Shields from Tampa Bay. But considering the hitting that the Reds would be sending to the Rays, this is a deal that the Rays cannot afford to miss out on. Keep an eye on Tampa Bay as the team will continue to improve, get younger at a competitive payroll come deadline day and still remain in contention. If this is truly James Shield’s last week in a Rays uniform, please be sure to catch his last start live or on television from Oakland this coming Wednesday July 27th. With Desmond Jennings and Dane De La Rosa just recalled by the Rays from AAA, the cycle of player and prospect replenishment has already begun again in Tampa Bay.
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