The Present and Future of James Shields | The Process Report

The Present and Future of James Shields

If Tuesday night was James Shields’ final start in a Tampa Bay Rays uniform, he saved his best for last. The Rays lost 1-0 to the Orioles in a meaningless game for Tampa Bay. Despite the result, Shields’ individual performance will go down as one of the—if not the—best we have seen in Tampa Bay.

In taking the “loss,” Shields tossed a complete game, allowed one run on two hits, walked no one, and struck out a franchise record 15 hitters. He became the first pitcher in the live ball era to lose while posting those hit, strikeout, and walk numbers. Shields is also just the second pitcher to take the loss after allowing one earned run or less with 15-plus strikeouts and no walks (Dwight Gooden 1984). Tuesday marked Shields 14th complete game since the start of the 2011 season, the most in the major leagues.

Shields required 106 pitches (70 strikes) to complete his latest gem: 54 fastballs (including cutters), 30 changeups, and 22 curveballs. The Orioles took 54 total swings, missing 23 times. Unsurprisingly, the changeup was the most potent weapon for Shields. He coaxed 17 swings with the off-speed pitch, inducing 11 whiffs—including seven with two strikes. With the changeup racking up swings-and-misses in bunches, Shields spotted a few well-placed fastballs for strike three was well. This season, Shields has favored the cutter as two-strike alternative to the changeup. But on Tuesday night, the traditional fastball froze four different Orioles.

In the fifth inning, Shields worked ahead of Matt Wieters using fastballs and a curve. He attempted to finish the Orioles catcher with a cutter away, but Wieters took the pitch outside to even the count at 2-2. Perhaps waiting for something with more movement, Wieters was caught looking on the next pitch—a 94-mph fastball on the inner-third of the plate. Shields fell behind the next batter – Jim Thome – before evening the count at 2-2 with a called-strike on an 88-mph changeup low in the zone. On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, Shields threw Thome a 93-mph heater—nearly identical to the one he threw Wieters—which locked up the veteran hitter for strike three.

Shields’ lone mistake came on an elevated changeup to Chris Davis in the fourth inning. He faced Davis again in the seventh inning. Davis grabbed an early advantage by sitting on two fastballs outside in the zone and fouling off a curveball. Never afraid to throw any pitch in any count, Shields threw Davis a 2-1 curveball resulting in a whiff to square the count at 2-2. Perhaps expecting a changeup, Davis kept his bat on his shoulder as Shields snuck a 93-mph fastball up-and-in for strike three.

With two outs in the ninth inning, Shields faced J.J. Hardy with 14 strikeouts in his back pocket. The right-hander jumped ahead 1-2, generating two empty swings on well-thrown curveballs. Shields elevated a 95-mph fastball fouled off by Hardy which set the stage for his final pitch of the season. Receiving some assistance from home plate umpire Ed Hickox, Shields completed the record-breaking masterpiece with a 95-mph fastball on the outside corner for a called strike three.

Watching James Shields more than 200 times over the last seven season has been a pleasure, but the reality is baseball is a business. While the $9 million he is set to make in 2013 is a bargain—even for the Rays—trading Shields has to be on the table. In a supply vs. demand league, Shields’ skill set and contract are in high demand while the supply on the open market for quality starting pitching is not all that strong.

In addition to supply and demand, consider strengths and weaknesses. Tampa Bay does not have the means to pay market price for an offensive star, but the franchise continues to produce quality starting pitching on an annual basis. Moving a starting pitcher for controllable, offensive talent seems like the most likely alternative to paying big dollars in free agency. Because of his age, salary, and value, Shields looks like the most likely candidate to go; perhaps fetching a Mat Latos-like package of major-league ready prospects from a team like the Texas Rangers or Atlanta Braves.

While Shields looks like the easy answer, exploring a Jeremy Hellickson trade might actually be the better move. The 2011 rookie of the year, Hellickson finished sixth in the American League with a 3.20 ERA as a sophomore. Nevertheless, his peripheral statistics were still lacking; although his ability to induce weak contact—leading to fewer hits—looks to be a repeatable skill.

Because of his age, his results over the past two seasons, and his remaining team control (four years), Hellickson should net a better return than the 30-year-old Shields. Normally, Hellickson would be the type of player the Rays would like to keep long-term; however, just a year away from arbitration, Hellickson may prefer to go year-to-year instead signing of a team-friendly extension.

For the Rays, the decision would come down to a potentially better package for Hellickson or a slightly lesser package for Shields plus the millions saved in salary. In my opinion, the Rays would be better served trading Hellickson; receiving the better bounty in return while keeping the better pitcher in Shields – albeit for a shorter time frame. With increasing salaries for Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, and David Price, the core of the Rays will only remain in tact for so long. Moving Hellickson for major-league ready position player(s) improves the team in the present and the future without sacrificing from the current group – inserting Chris Archer or Alex Cobb in his place and keeping Shields at the anchor.

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