Will the Tampa Bay Rays Bring James Shields Back? Hopefully

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I walked into a sports bar the other night just as James Shields had struck out his record-setting, fifteenth batter.

Watching Shields walk off the mound in the ninth, holding back the tears, was a fitting finale to the Tampa Bay Rays season, his final out of the night recorded, confident he had given his all, yet his team behind 1-0.  “Big Game” James was nearly unhittable Tuesday night.  The only problem, as has happened all too often this season, was that the lineup behind him was equally unable to manufacture a hit.

And so Shields’ night, and perhaps career with the Rays, came to a close.  He tipped his cap to the roar of the appreciative crowd then descended into the dugout to the hugs and high-fives of his teammates, probably wishing he could have traded some of that love for a run or two, but alas, he pitches for the Rays and that’s not how they roll.  Until last night, no pitcher in the live ball era had ever lost a game after striking out fifteen, walking none, giving up only two hits and one lone run.  It was another typical outing for Shields and unfortunately, another typical outing for the Rays lineup.

Don’t let their run differential of +120 fool you.  These Rays, who missed the post-season by only three games, would beat you 11-2 just as often as they’d lose 2-1.  They featured what could legitimately be considered one of the best pitching staffs ever assembled from top to bottom.  They allowed the fewest runs in the majors but finished 28th in the league in hits and 27th in batting average.  Not to be outdone by teammate and strong Cy Young candidate David Price, who won 20 games and finished with a 2.56 ERA, Shields, their number two starter, finished 15-10 and led the team in strikeouts with 223.  He won’t get any love for Cy Young this year but he finished third in the voting for the award last year.  Additionally, Shields has started at least 33 games for the Rays every season since 2008, showing he’s the most consistent arm in that rotation.  We’ll see if the Rays are about to make him the highest paid.

Shields is scheduled to make $10.25 million if the team picks up his option in 2013.  The question remains whether Tampa can afford, or is even willing to do so when their entire roster only makes $65 million.  Shields’ name was involved in trade rumors all season and the Rays have plenty of solid young pitchers (Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jeremy Hellickson) at one-tenth the price.

If it was left up to the fans, and perhaps even James, he’d be pitching in the Trop again next year but the Rays rotation is getting full while their pocketbooks aren’t.  If the Rays don’t re-up on Shields, some team out there gladly will, paying handsomely for one of the game’s best young arms.

Not long ago, I wrote that Rays fans enjoy being the underdog, the little engine that could but just couldn’t afford to, able to knock off the financial giants at one-third the cost, but it’s times like these Rays that fans don’t like, the uneasy feeling they won’t be able to re-sign one of their greatest players with nothing they can do about it.

James wants to be here, his teammates want him here.  Rays fans most certainly want him here and ownership probably does too.  Either way, it’s going to come down to whether the numbers add up.  Meanwhile, Tampa fans will spend their warm winter with their fingers crossed.

The Rays have let other players go when their contracts were up.  Matt Garza and Carl Crawford come to mind.  Those players met with limited success when not playing for Maddon the mastermind.  The same can probably not be said for Shields who it’s hard to imagine won’t be equally as dominant in another uniform.

Rays fans are hoping that’s something they won’t have to see.

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