by Chuck Myron for MLBTR
In December, the Rays parted with their all-time leader in wins, strikeouts and games started when they sent James Shields to the Royals in a blockbuster trade that brought back a package headlined by touted prospect Wil Myers. Shields, the only pitcher ever to notch a win in the World Series for Tampa Bay, was coming off the best two-season stretch of his seven-year Major League career, compiling a 3.15 ERA and 448 strikeouts in 477 innings across 66 starts. Myers is the jewel of the Rays’ haul, which includes two more minor leaguers who have won Baseball America and MLB.com top-100 billing within the past 18 months. Still, the four players heading to Tampa Bay as part of the deal have a total of two games of Major League experience.
The result is an obvious hole in the Rays rotation, as well as in the clubhouse. But many of the Rays who spoke to MLBTR during Spring Training believe the move wasn’t nearly as jarring as it could have been.
"I think it’s an easier pill to swallow when it happens in the winter, and you get to spring training and you have what you believe is your team," outfielder Sam Fuld said. "And ultimately that group of 25 guys is going to change, obviously, throughout the season, but when you lose a guy of that significance, it helps to do it before the season starts."
Many of Fuld’s teammates concurred, including righty Jeff Niemann, who was battling to inherit the open spot in the rotation that wound up going to Roberto Hernandez. Compared to a midseason trade, "it’s kind of almost like it never happened," Niemann said.
Left-hander Matt Moore, one of the starters who’ll be asked to step up in Shields’ absence, offered a dissenting view. He isn’t so sure the timing of the move made any difference.
"It’s just a part of what happens," Moore said. "Teams trade guys every year, so you know it’s going to happen."
Still, Ben Zobrist believes the players in the Rays clubhouse aren’t the only ones better off because of when the move occurred, pointing to Shields and fellow pitching staff mainstay Wade Davis, who also went to Kansas City in the trade.
"I guess it’s probably easier for them to transition to a different team," Zobrist said. "Every team coming in is going to be new and different, because there’s going to be new guys. So yeah, it’s probably easier on us and them, just knowing that that transition was happening in the offseason instead of right in the middle of the season."
Talk of a Shields trade wasn’t confined to the hot stove period. The Cardinals, Braves, Dodgers, Indians, Rangers, Diamondbacks and Angels all showed interest in acquiring Shields in the days leading up to last year’s trade deadline. There were rumors about his availability before the 2011 deadline as well. Right-handed pitcher Alex Cobb, who acknowledged the team wouldn’t have won as many games the past two seasons if Shields weren’t around, is glad the team held off on a trade. Cobb, 25, is nonetheless confident that he and the rest of the team’s young players are ready to compete this year without their one-time ace.
"We’ve got Chris Archer on the verge from the Garza trade, (and) multiple prospects in the minor leagues on the verge of getting ready to help the big league club," Cobb said. "That’s just the way we operate around here. It’s obviously tough to let go of not only James, (but also) Wade, who’s been a great arm for us, both starting and relieving. But it’s one of the things that we have to do to keep competing in the AL East. We have to get rid of the older, more veteran-type guys and bring a new crop of young guys to do the job that they’ve done in the past."
Jeremy Hellickson, another 25-year-old right-handed starter, sees Cobb’s development as a key part of the club’s reloading effort.
"(Shields) was a big part of our rotation last year, but you know, Cobb’s going to step in this year, and he’s going to throw a lot of innings for us, so as good as (Shields) was, and as much as he saved the bullpen and all that, I like the guys we have," Hellickson said.
Of course, the effectiveness of the trade, regardless of its timing, will ultimately be judged by how the newly acquired prospects perform at the big-league level. In particular, Myers, who put up a .286/.333/.429 slash line in 35 spring at-bats before getting sent down to Triple-A, has his Major League teammates anxious to see him return.
"I know he swings it really well," Moore said. "I’ve seen a lot of solid contact and good plate appearances, so I’m excited for him."
"He was impressive," infielder Sean Rodriguez said. "Time will tell with him. He’s definitely got tools, he’s definitely got a good head on his shoulders, so we’ll see."