BY THOMAS DRANCE
When I listed five reasons for Blue Jays fans to remain pessimistic this season, in spite of the big splash the team made in mid-November, one of the major things that made my list was the fact that the team still plays in the AL East. Though it’s only mid-December, the evidence is clear: the AL East remains the toughest division in baseball and the Jays will be in tough to compete this season and longer-term.
Sure, the Yankees and their deep pockets have mostly remained on the sidelines, while the Baltimore Orioles have yet to capitalize on their winning season in the form of any major offseason aquisitions. But the Boston Red Sox have added Johnny Gomes, Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli – all of whom will punish left-handed pitchers (wait, don’t the Blue Jays have three projected lefties in their starting five?) while the Tampa Bay Devil Rays pulled off a trade for the ages, acquiring one of the top prospects in baseball in Wil Myers and other pieces, for their second starter, James Shields, and reliever Wade Davis.
How will this trade impact the landscape of the AL East this season and for seasons to come? Let’s take a look.
Let’s begin with what the Devil Rays gave up in James Shields and Wade Davis. James Shields is a stellar number two pitcher – a 6’4 righty who will celebrate his 31st birthday next week. Shields has pitched over 200 innings in six straight seasons, and has posted a WAR above four games in four of those six campaigns. He boasts a 92 MPH fastball (that topped out at 96 MPH last season) and a nice offspeed changeup as the two pitches he really relies on, though he can also throw a nasty curve and a power slider that regularly hit 94 MPH last season. Shields throws some nasty stuff, and he immediately gives the Royals a solid number one pitcher for the front of their rotation.
If there’s one concern with Shields, it’s that his Home/Road splits over the past several seasons suggest that he’s benefitted significantly from playing in a pitchers friendly ball-park, in front of one of the best defenses in the contemporary history of baseball. Over the past three seasons his xFip number has hovered around 3 to 3.2 at Tropicana, while its been closer to 3.5+ away from those friendly confines.
Now Shields’ new ballpark in Missouri won’t be quite as friendly, but as redflags go his home/road splits aren’t much of a cause for concern. He’s a durable, power righty who is under contract for two more seasons and he’ll provide the Royals with serious value. Meanwhile, its tough to imagine that the Rays – as crafty as they are and even with their wealth of pitching depth – can replace Shields’ contributions in the short-term without missing a beat.
Wade Davis is another arm the Rays give up and a much more replaceable one. Davis is a guy who used to be an average middle of the rotation starter, but is significantly more effective pitching out of the bullpen in a “swingman” type role. In 2011, for example, he pitched 184 innings and was worth .9 wins over replacement, a total he exceeded in 70 innings coming out of the bullpen. Pitching out of the pen, Davis basically added 2 MPH on his fastball last season – so one assumes he’ll function as the Royals long-man and be solid, if unspectacular in that role.
In sum, the Rays dealt away roughly five wins and two useful pieces, which may bode well for their AL East rivals next season. But in return, they netted Wil Myers – one of the top-prospects in all of baseball, promising 22 year old starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi, lefty prospect Mike Montgomery and third base prospect Patrick Leonard. It’s a veritable bounty, but if we’re being realistic: outside of Myers, none of those players seem likely to contribute in a big way next season.
The key to this trade for Tampa, which lost B.J. Upton in free-agency this winter, is outfielder Wil Myers – who was named Baseball America’s “Minor League Player of the Year” this past season – and looks like a five-tool outfielder. He’ll also be an affordable option for the cash conscious Rays, as he’s under team control for six seasons.
Between AA and AAA this past season, Myers put up an absolutely nasty slash line of .313/.387/.600. While he wasn’t much of a threat on the basepaths, if you google his name you’ll find roughly a kajillion salivating scouting reports that gush about his outfield speed, his arm and his defensive value. For a cheap club like the Rays, Myers is a near perfect fit, and though no prospect is a sure thing a lot of smart baseball people would be gobsmacked if Myers isn’t at least an above average corner outfielder within the next couple of seasons.
While most smart baseball people hate this trade for Tampa, the fact remains that in the short-term the Rays took a step back, and the Royals took a step forward. The Royals have now revamped their starting rotation with Guthrie, Shields and Santana and clearly have their eye on the second wildcard spot. The Rays on the other hand, will hope that in Myers and Odorizzi they got two regular contributors in this deal, and two players who will be with them for the medium-term at a cost-controlled price.
In other words, the Rays capitalized on an asset (Shields), sold high and sacrificed some shot-term competitiveness for long-term success. That’s just how the club with the lowest payroll in the AL East operates, reminding Jays fans once again that the AL East remains the toughest division in baseball for a reason.
All stats in this piece taken from Fangraphs.com