If you can’t beat him, trade for him, amirite? Rays right-hander James Shields has dominated the Yankees twice within the last two weeks (one earned run in 15.2 IP), but that’s not the real reason we’re talking about him here. Tampa is gradually dropping out of the race and the generally belief is that Shields’ days with the team are numbered as he gets more expensive and their next top pitching prospect (Matt Moore) gets closer to the show. The Reds are one team with interest, and earlier this week Buster Olney (Insider req’d) noted that no one explores options more thoroughly than Tampa. If they move him, it’ll be because they’re improving the team, not just saving money.
So with all that in mind, let’s break Shields’ game down and see what kind of fit he is for the Yankees, if he’s one at all…
- Shields is in the middle of the best season of his career. His 2.53 ERA is backed up by a 3.14 FIP and a 2.98 xFIP, and he’s got career highs in strikeout rate (8.69 K/9), swing and miss rate (11.6%), and homerun rate (0.86 HR/9). His 45.6% ground ball rate is his second best ever, and although his 2.30 BB/9 is his worse walk rate since his rookie year, it’s still pretty damn good.
- Although his world class changeup gets most of the attention, Shields legitimately throws six different pitches. That low-80’s changeup works off three different fastballs: a low-90’s four-seamer, a low-90’s two-seamer, and a high-80’s cutter. He doesn’t use the last two often (6.8% and 4.9% of the time this season), but he does use them. Shields is throwing his high-70’s curveball more than ever this year (22.0%), which is part of the reason why he’s had so much success. A slider is his other offering.
- That repertoire is the reason why Shields has virtually no platoon split for his career, though he has a slight one in 2011. It’s not significant enough to worry about. Because that’s not good enough, he also has arguably the best right-handed pickoff move in baseball. He leads the league with ten pickoffs, and runners have stolen zero bases off him in three attempts this season. During his career, runners have stolen just 38 bases in 62 attempts (61.3%).
- Only eight pitchers have thrown at least 200 IP every season since 2007, and Shields is one of them. He’s on pace to do it yet again this year. You don’t throw that many innings without being healthy, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Shields has never been on the disabled list. He’s obviously a career AL East pitcher and has been very successful in baseball’s most unforgiving division, so the transition should be minimal. Shields has pitched in the playoffs and in the World Series, so that’s another plus.
- The contract is as friendly as it gets. Shields will be paid a total of $4.25M this season (about $708k per month), then there are club options for 2012 ($7M with a $2M buyout), 2013 ($9M with a $1.5M buyout), and 2014 ($12M with a $1M buyout). Escalators tied to innings pitches, starters, and finishes in the Cy Young Award voting could put another $6M in his pocket. Either way, that’s an absolute steal.
- As great as he’s been this season, we can’t completely ignore Shields’ atrocious 2010 campaign. His 5.18 ERA didn’t match his 4.24 FIP, but Shields led the league in hits allowed (246, or 10.9 H/9), earned runs allowed (117), and homeruns allowed (34). Opponents hit .294/.338/.490 off him overall and .313/.356/.534 off him away from pitcher friendly Tropicana Field.
- The roads woes are not an isolated incident either. Shields has been a 4.67 ERA (~4.45 FIP) pitcher away from home over the course of his career, when batters have tagged him for a .276/.323/.467 batting line.
- I don’t put much stock in this stuff, but Shields hasn’t pitched well against the Red Sox in his career, a 4.95 ERA and ~4.05 FIP in 18 career starts. His numbers at Fenway Park are even worse: a 7.71 ERA with a ~4.90 FIP in eight career starts. In fairness, he did throw a complete game shutout against the Red Sox earlier this year, the video you see above. As for the current version of Yankee Stadium, he owns a 3.71 ERA (~4.40 FIP) in four career starts there.
- Shields is incredibly homer prone. That 0.86 HR/9 this year might be a career best, but it’s still not all that great. He allowed one homer for every six innings pitched last season and 1.1 HR/9 from 2007-2009. His career HR/FB% is 11.6%, which is quite high. It’s not uncommon for changeup pitchers to be homer prone, every once in a while they’ll leave one up, and a high changeup is just a batting practice fastball.
- He’s been healthy in the big leagues, but it’s worth nothing that Shields did miss the entire 2002 minor league season because of shoulder surgery. Once it’s in a guy’s past, he’s never really clear of danger.
The elephant in the room here is the intra-division issue. Brian Cashman and Rays GM Andrew Friedman have made exactly one trade with each other, a 2006 swap that involved Nick Green coming to New York and cash going to Tampa. Talks between the two clubs about Matt Garza never really got off the ground this winter because “strong impressions were that it would be something that would cost us more because we are in the division, kind of like Roy Halladay,” according to Cashman. “There was also reluctance from them to trading within the division.” That whole intra-division thing would be a major, major obstacle.
In terms of talent and expected production, Shields is about as good as it’ll get. He’s not in the Halladay/Cliff Lee/Felix Hernandez/uber-pitcher category, but he’s proven over several years to be a well-above-average hurler in the tougher league, and this year he’s been ace-like. He’s still very much in the prime of his career at age 29, so there’s no reason to expect a significant age-related drop-off anytime soon. And that contract, goodness is that contract favorable. Any team that trades for him would be getting more than three of his peak years for a total of $29.5M or so, assuming all the options are picked up. That’s a steal, fire-your-agent kind of robbery.
The Rays are extremely well run and have a knack for getting both quality and quantity in trades. They turned Jason Bartlett (Jason Bartlett!) into three big league relievers and a useful prospect. We saw the Garza haul, which cost the Cubs their two top prospects (Chris Archer and Hak-Ju Lee), two other near-MLB ready prospects (Robinson Chirinos and Brandon Guyer, both of whom have played in the bigs this year), and a serviceable bench player (Sam Fuld). You’d have to mark up from there if you want to envision a package for Shields because he’s better now than Garza was last year and he has a much more favorable contract than his former teammate. Think two top prospects, three other near MLB ready guys, and maybe more. I don’t believe a trade of this magnitude would happen between the two teams, but the Yankees would have to strongly consider it if Tampa shows the willingness to move him to one of their biggest rivals.
Update: Buster Olney says the Yankees called the Rays about Shields, but were told that he’s not available.