With the trade deadline approaching you're going to hear the Rays mentioned as being a part of any number of rumored deals. As Steve detailed earlier this week, the Rays are in an odd situation. They're not quite in the race enough to sell off prospects and buy assets for a playoff run, and they're not far enough behind to ship off current stars for a collection of prospects.
But, as Steve again detailed, they'll likely end up in the "sellers" section of the market. The Yankees and Red Sox are the two best teams in the league and it's going to take an awful lot for the Rays to overcome that mountain and reach the playoffs for a third time in four seasons. That means the team is left with a number of pretty attractive trade chips, if they're so inclined. The most attractive of the bunch would be James Shields.
Last season I don't believe a lot of the Tampa Bay area would have been upset if the Rays just cut Shields loose after his sub-par performance. It may be a different story after the first half he's put up in 2011. He's signed to a very team friendly contract that runs through this season with club options for 2012-2014 valued at $7M, $9M, and $12M. Based on the value calculator at FanGraphs, Shields was worth $18.4M, $18.5M, and $17.5M in his 2007-2009 seasons. That figure is already up to $15.2 million this season thanks to his current 3.4 WAR. Shields likely won't have another season quite as good as the one he's currently enjoying, but if he can produce numbers close to his '07-'09 stretch he'll more than out perform his salary next year. Seven million dollars isn't an exorbitant sum for the Rays, and a 2012 rotation of Shields, Price, Hellickson, Moore, and Davis/Niemann looks awfully good. Let's take a look at the scenarios in which Shields could be dealt.
The Rays are blown away by an offer
Actually, that's the only scenario. The closest comparison I can think of is Dan Haren being traded to Arizona after the 2007 season. He was signed to an even more team friendly deal than Shields is; $4M in 2008, $5.5M in 2009, and a $6.75M club option for 2010. Granted, the A's weren't exactly contending for a title at that time so they didn't have as much incentive to keep Haren as the Rays do with Shields. Oakland received six players in exchange for Haren and Connor Robertson, most notably Brett Anderson and Carlos Gonzalez. It would likely take a deal of even greater value for the Rays to move Shields since they're not a below .500 mess like Oakland was.
I don't see another situation that would tempt the Rays enough to move him during the season. Let's get one thing straight, if they did trade Shields this season, or even during the off season, it would not be about money. Sure, money plays a factor into nearly every decision the Rays make, but on different levels. Would the Red Sox or Yankees ever considering trading a player as good as Shields with that much team control left? No chance. Those teams aren't as concerned with replenishing a farm system while contending at the same time, either. Money is the luxury that makes Adrian Gonzalez's and Carl Crawford's possible.
It's unlikely that Shields will be traded this season. If he did it would be one of the sadder days in franchise history for me and numerous others. However, if the Rays feel like they receive an offer they can't refuse I wouldn't blame them in a second if they traded him. Hell, I'd be more upset if they didn't move him in that scenario. As much as I love Shields, I ultimately root for laundry. If you can't handle the idea of the Rays possibly trading away their best pitcher -- and frankly best player at this point -- then you're following the wrong team.
The likelihood of Shields remaining a Ray through the winter is strong, but, if he's not, it'll be with a heavy heart that I support the decision.