Shields was already being talked about as a trade target before the season began, though the price tag will have surely risen following a string of dominant performances which have seen him challenge David Price for the title of club ace. On this season alone he would seem to be untradeable – All Stars with three plus pitches and team friendly contracts rarely hit the market – but it isn’t totally clear what a prospective buyer would be getting or be willing to give up.
How big is Shields’ game?
Shields pitched excellently during the Rays historic 2008 season on his way to a 3.56 ERA (3.87 xFIP), 1.15 WHIP, 4.1 WAR season. He managed to get his HR/FB rate under 10% for the first time in his career and walked just 1.67 per 9 innings. 2009 saw much of the same production and while his wins decreased and ERA increased, the underlying numbers stayed fairly level with only his walk totals seeing a moderate increase. Then came 2010. How you assess last season will likely play a major role in determining Shields’ trade value so the numbers are worth looking at again.
The 5.18 ERA is obviously the headline, though I’m sure there are still at least a few analysts who might also be concerned about his 13-15 record. An increased number of fly balls (58.7%) coupled with a higher percentage (13.8%) of them leaving the park conspired to give Shields a rate of 1.5 HR/9 (second only to Rodrigo Lopez – last seen playing at a replacement level on the fringes of the Cubs rotation). We all know about the career highs in BABIP (.341 versus career average of .302) and strand rate (68% versus career rate of 72%) suggesting some bad luck, but what is not always publicised is his expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP) which actually improved in 2010 to 3.55; a career best. This measure attempts to eliminate factors a pitcher has no control over (team defence, abnormal BABIP etc) and while it must be conceded that it will overvalue Shields a bit (due to his tendency to give up the HR), the fact he ranked 7th in the American League , ahead of the likes of CC Sabathia, Zach Greinke and David Price, in what was considered to be a disastrous season perhaps suggests that Shields is better than merely a good pitcher having a great year in 2011.
Using FanGraphs Pitch Type Value stats, we can see that Shields has improved his fastball success to make it at least an average pitch, while his cutter, curve and particularly his devastating changeup would rank among some of the better pitches in the league. His strand rate (80%) and BABIP (.258) are both some way from his career average suggesting some regression is due but given that he currently ranks 5th in all of baseball in xFIP, that would still leave him among the elite. Shields is striking our more batters than ever in 2011, a trend that has been developing since 2008, while inducing an increased frequency of swinging strikes. There are signs therefore that Shields has turned a corner and taken steps to become a permanently better pitcher.
A handful of big time pitchers have been traded over the past few years, and while no comparison is perfect, looking at these deals might give some indication as to the price Shields may command. For each player we can see their career WAR at the time of the trade, their contract situation and the players sent in the other direction.
|Career WAR||Contract||Traded For|
|Roy Halladay(TOR to PHI, Dec-09)||55 in 313 appearances||1 year, $10.5m||Kyle DrabekTravis D’Arnaud Michael Taylor|
|CC Sabathia(CLE to MIL, Jul-08)||33.5 in 237 appearances||Expiring||Michael BrantleyMatt LaPorta
|Cliff Lee(TEX to SEA, Jul-10)||26.7 in 207 appearances||Expiring||Justin SmoakBlake Beavan
|Zack Greinke(KC to MIL, Dec-10)||27.0 in 210 appearances||2011: $13.5m2012: $13.5m||Alcides EscobarLorenzo Cain
|Dan Haren(ARI to LAA, Jul-10)||29.2 in 157 appearances||2011: $12.75m2012: $12.75m
2013: $15.5m club option
|Tyler SkaggsPatrick Corbin
|Matt Garza(TB to CHC, Jan-11)||9.9 in 121 appearances||3 arbitration eligible years||Chris ArcherHak Ju-Lee
|James Shields||19.8 in 172 appearances||2012: $7m club option2013: $9m club option
2014: $12m club option
Shields isn’t quite in Sabathia or Halladay’s category, and those deals aren’t too helpful for guidance anyway given the fact that the contracts were expiring within 3 or 9 months. Though their career stats are comparable, Shields has never had the type of season Lee had in 2008 and 2009 so again the comparison might be limited here. That said, the fact that the Mariners were able to grab Justin Smoak (then ranked #13 by Baseball America) and apparently received an offer including Jesus Montero (#4) from the Yankees for a player about to hit free agency is encouraging for Shields’ potential value.
The other three names are fairly instructive as each had a number of control years locked down at good to okay prices though the haul received from each varies wildly. Kansas City seems to have received the worst deal, possibly due to Greinke’s public desire to be traded, but they still received a package of prospects that should at least provide somewhere between major league depth and mid-level starters. Escobar is a useful player who grades out as one of the better defensive players at short while swinging an average bat while Cain appears unlucky to have missed out on the main roster to season. Given the Rays farm system though, one would be disappointed to deal Shields and get no star prospects back as the Royals appear to have done here. Given Shields’ contract situation, only a huge decline in his play should result in such a low level deal.
Dan Haren’s career numbers are exceptional and he probably rates as one of the more underrated players in the game today. His contract is worth between $25.5m and $41m depending on whether the club option is exercised meaning it is both more costly and less flexible than Shields’. Despite that, the Diamondbacks were able to snag two prospects who now rate in their top 10 in Skaggs and Corbin along with an adequate back-end starter in Joe Saunders. Obviously the Rays would be less interested in a pair of lefty starters but a couple of top 10 organizational prospects and a positional player/bullpen arm who could contribute now could begin to peak their interest.
The best haul for a pitcher in recent years is very familiar and its success appears to have been nicely highlighted in Monday’s game against the Yankees. With Robinson Chirinos’ called up, he joins Guyer and Fuld as acquired players contributing already for the Rays, with the bigger prospects – Chris Archer and Hak Ju-Lee – still to come. Archer, Lee and Guyer ranked 1, 4 and 10 in the Cubs system and each projects to make an impact for the Rays in 2012 or sooner with Lee getting an increasing amount of buzz these days. Garza is two years younger than Shields but his success has been less consistent and with a lower ceiling there’s no reason for the Rays not to expect a similar, or better haul if they were to move Shields.
The main argument for moving Shields is not money but rather the depth of players waiting behind him for their chance in the majors. Matt Moore’s stock is rising as fast as anyone in the game with Jason Grey calling him the “best pitching prospect in the game” and Keith Law elevating him to number two on his list of prospects. Such was the excitement after the Futures game, Jerry Crasnick reported that one scout suggested the Rays would have the best rotation in baseball in two years (without mentioning Archer, Cobb or Torres) even with Shields out of the picture.
However, great teams who continually put a great product on the field often draft/sign players to their strength to continue to dominate in one area of the game. While a rotation of Price-Hellickson-Moore-Davis-Niemann would be above average, keeping Shields makes it potentially elite, enough to prop up a side unlikely to become a powerhouse offense anytime soon. Price, Shields and Hellickson collectively rank 8th in WAR this year but are one of only three trios where each starter is under 30. When you consider that the other two teams (Seattle and San Francisco) have already called up their equivalent of Moore (Michael Pineda and Madison Bumgarner) you quickly realise that this top four could be the best in baseball in just a couple of short seasons.
You had me at ‘club option’
At least for 2012, and possibly for 2013, there isn’t anyone who is going to get prohibitively expensive (Price hitting arbitration will be costly though) and with Damon ($5.25m) gone this year along with Upton (~$5m), Shoppach ($3m) and probably Farnsworth (~$3m) gone by 2013, there should be scope to hold Shields’ contract, safe in the knowledge that if he sees a significant decline, the team is only on the hook for one year.
The above deals have shown that getting a good return for a top pitcher is not guaranteed and at some point you have to stick with the star you have, rather than chasing the promise of 2014+. Crawford’s case was very different as the contract was always going to be prohibitively rich and (at least in theory) his replacement was already in the system. Yes, the pitching depth is among the best in baseball but young starters are one of the few weapons the Rays have against the higher spending teams as toolsy hitters just do not sign $7m club options in their prime years. With a team friendly contract, a developing arsenal of pitches and a leadership role (which cannot be discounted), this might be one instance where the Rays play for the now rather than the future.
[Just as I finished writing this, Buster Olney posted that the Yankees called about Shields and they said 'no way'. Whether this applies to rivals or all teams is unclear]