- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Of all the decisions that will be made by baseball executives over the next three days, none will be as excruciating as the Tampa Bay Rays' decision to trade or not trade James Shields.
After the Rays' 3-1 loss to the Los Angeles Angels on Friday, Tampa Bay is 51-49, and the New York Yankees are almost out of sight, nine-and-a-half games away. The Rays are three-and-a-half games behind the front-runners for the American League wild card.
Their slide in the standings has not been through an improbable burst of losses, but through a steady decline. In early May, Tampa Bay was 19-8. Since then, the Rays are 32-41, and they haven't played well. Their defense has been surprisingly poor and by AL East standards, their offense has been woeful; Tampa Bay has scored two runs or less in about 30 percent of its games since Evan Longoria went down with an injury.
The Rays' chances for making the playoffs are not great, but this is a team that was miles out of contention at the beginning of last September. The memories of a comeback for the Tampa Bay players are more than fresh; they probably see more opportunity than most teams in their situation.
There is another murky issue right at the heart of the Rays' opaque situation -- and in the decisions made by other teams, in what to offer Tampa Bay for Shields: How good is James Shields, exactly? What is he, exactly?
Is he a front-line starter? Is he a plow horse -- a middle-of-the-rotation innings eater?
If relieved of the burden of pitching in the AL East, could he be better? Are his recent performances signs of things to come over the last two-and-a-half seasons of his current contract, or just a blip?
Last year, Shields had the best season of his career, going 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA and racking up a career-high 225 strikeouts in 249.1 innings. He held opponents to a .217 batting average, walked just 65 hitters and finished third in the voting for the AL Cy Young Award. The Rays chose to keep him through last year's trade deadline and into this season, rather than deal him.
But this year, Shields' ERA is more than a run and a half higher, at 4.52. His WHIP has climbed from 1.04 to 1.46, and he never has had a higher ratio of walks per nine innings than his current 2.9. These numbers are in line with what he did in 2010, when he posted a 5.18 ERA.
Is he a Cy Young candidate? Or is he a No. 4-type starter?
The answer to that has no bearing on the fact Shields' contract makes him more attractive. The Rays hold club options for $9 million in 2013 and for $12 million in 2014, and for Tampa Bay or any team that acquires Shields, this structure greatly diminishes risk. Even if Shields is more of a plow horse than an All-Star, an innings eater on a one-year, $9 million deal is good value. The Rangers could trade for the 30-year-old Shields and have confidence that at the very least they could be adding someone much like Colby Lewis -- except more durable.
Friends of Rays general manager Andrew Friedman say he is unsure of how to handle this situation and what is the right course of action. "I wouldn't be at all surprised if he trades Shields," another GM said. "But if you told me that Shields was still with [the Rays] after the deadline, that wouldn't surprise me, either."
The interest in Shields has ramped up, writes Marc Topkin.
It's so far, so good for Longoria in his rehabilitation assignment.
The same kinds of questions are likely being asked by rival evaluators about Josh Johnson: How good is he? How significant an injury risk is he? Johnson, who is owed about $19 million for the next season and a half, is coming off a strong outing against the Braves, but Johnson is also having the worst season of his career.
It's worth noting that Friedman and Texas GM Jon Daniels are good friends, but they have never made a trade; they are very similar in how they negotiate, which could make it more difficult for them to work out a deal.
• The Rangers continue to talk about Shields and Johnson, writes Jeff Wilson.
• The Rangers lost on Friday, and Josh Hamilton was booed.
• The pressure on the Rangers to add a starting pitcher has been ramped up after the Angels' acquisition of Greinke. You can imagine Angels owner Arte Moreno throwing his wallet on top of a massive pile of chips, raising the stakes, and now we'll see if Nolan Ryan and the Rangers choose to match Anaheim by adding another starting pitcher for themselves.
If Moreno is on a victory stage in October and hoisting a trophy, the Greinke deal will make sense, in 20-20 hindsight. But it could be that by the first weekend of October the investment in Greinke will feel like a flushed investment. As of Saturday morning, the Angels are four games behind the Rangers, and gaining ground. If they wind up settling for the wild-card berth, however, they could be looking at a one-game playoff -- with Oakland, as of now -- and a quick knockout would cause some buyer's remorse.
But rival evaluators don't think they gave up any blue-chippers in the deal with the Brewers. Jean Segura is projected by several teams not involved in this trade as an everyday player -- but as a second baseman, in the end -- and he is very aggressive at the plate. "A hacker," said one official, noting how few walks Segura has drawn in his professional career -- just 122 in more than 1,700 plate appearances.
John Hellweg, the better of the two pitching prospects Milwaukee received, has a powerful arm, but rival evaluators report that his command is very suspect.
• The Brewers like what they got, as Tom Haudricourt writes.
• Greinke had to go, writes Michael Hunt.
But even if the Angels don't play deep into the playoffs, the Greinke deal makes sense, given the club's level of investment in the 2012 season with the addition of Albert Pujols and the meteoric rise of Mike Trout.
From ESPN Stats & Information, a next-level look at what the Angels are getting:
FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is essentially an estimate of what a pitcher's ERA should be, based on his strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed.
Greinke averages 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.1 walks per nine innings, and 0.5 HR per nine innings, good for a FIP of 2.50, which ranks as the best in MLB (his ERA is 3.44).
Greinke's the only pitcher who ranks in the top 25 in strikeout rate, walk rate and ground ball rate.
The Angels made their move, writes Vincent Bonsignore.
The Braves whiffed on Greinke, and this trend is getting old for Atlanta, writes Jeff Schultz.
By the way, rival officials believe the Angels have a really good shot at retaining Greinke -- although it's possible that they will wind up in a whopper bidding war with the Dodgers, who have millions to burn. The Angels could have some flexibility with their rotation, given that they hold a $15.5 million option on Dan Haren for 2013 (with a $3.5 million buyout). If Haren throws well down the stretch and remains healthy, the decision to retain him on a one-year deal will be a no-brainer. However, if he pitches poorly, or if his lower back problems flare again, the Angels could use the money that has been devoted to Haren and aim it at a Greinke investment.
• Haren pitched well again Friday, shutting down the Rays.
• As the Phillies continue to fall in the standings, and the Reds continue to look for a leadoff hitter, Philadelphia continues to be one of the best possible sources in Cincinnati's pursuit of someone who could hit at the top of its lineup. Shane Victorino could be a fit, so could Juan Pierre, who has fared very well against right-handed pitching this year; Pierre is hitting .338 in 222 at-bats against righties this year with 14 walks and 12 strikeouts.
• For now, all is quiet for the Reds, writes John Fay.
Two teams to watch as the deadline approaches in the conversation about Chase Headley: the Baltimore Orioles and the Phillies. Headley would cost Philadelphia a good package of prospects, but he would give the Phillies an everyday third baseman under team control through 2014, and on a team loaded with enormous salaries he'd be relative cheap, for something in the range of $6 million next year.
For the Orioles, Headley would provide help for the franchise's effort to make the playoffs in 2012, but also a long-term solution at third base.
Oakland and Pittsburgh are among the other teams interested in Headley.
Moves, deals and decisions
3. Jim Pohlad wants Terry Ryan to be his permanent GM.
Dings and dents
1. Joba Chamberlain is very close to rejoining the Yankees' bullpen.
3. Placido Polanco went to the disabled list with a bad back.
4. Jaime Garcia continues to make progress, as he turns from his arm issue.
By The Numbers, from ESPN Stats & Info:
6: Consecutive games this season for Brian McCann with a home run against the Phillies; according to the Elias Sports Bureau, he's the first player ever with a home run in six consecutive games against the Phillies.
10: Home runs for Curtis Granderson on pitches at least 93 mph, the highest total in the league, after his grand slam Friday night.
13: Earned runs allowed for Jim Johnson since the All-Star break after he allowed six Friday night; he allowed just five earned runs in the first half of the season.
451: Distance, in feet, of Kevin Youkilis' home run Friday, his longest since tracking began in 2006.
• The Diamondbacks had a big day at the plate.
• The Giants lost ground in their lead, as they lost in extra innings.
• The Astros continue to be indescribably awful: They blew two leads and extended their losing streak to 11 games. They have tied a team record, as Zachary Levine writes.
• The Pirates rallied in the ninth inning.
• The Cardinals obliterated the Cubs with a bunch of home runs.
• The Reds' winning streak has reached eight games.
From ESPN Stats & Info, how Sheets beat the Phillies:
• All four of Sheets' strikeouts came with his curveball.
• Sheets held the Phillies to 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. Over his three starts, opponents are 0-for-15 in those situations. With runners in scoring position Friday, Sheets threw his curveball 35 percent of the time, up from 25 percent in his first two starts. Five of the six balls the Phillies put in play against Sheets with runners in scoring position were groundouts.
• The Phillies put 11 of 20 balls in play (55 percent) on the ground; Sheets had induced eight ground balls combined in his first two starts.
• The Nationals had a bad day.
• The Phillies need better starting pitching, says Charlie Manuel.
• Jon Niese was hit hard.
• The Mariners took advantage of the Royals.
• Chris Sale's fastball velocity was down, but the White Sox still won.
• The Tigers lost Friday; Anibal Sanchez is set to make his Detroit debut Saturday. Miguel Cabrera hit his 25th homer of the season, his fifth straight season with at least 25 home runs with the Tigers.
• A Twins pitcher threw great.
• The Indians were wrecked.
• The Yankees crushed the Red Sox in Ichiro's pinstriped debut at Yankee Stadium.
From ESPN Stats & Info: Granderson's grand slam came on a 93.7 mph fastball from Mark Melancon. It was Granderson's 10th home run this season on a pitch 93 mph or faster. His 10 home runs on such pitches are two more than any other player in baseball.
• Jim Johnson had the kind of inning that can wreck a reliever's ERA.
• The Jays are hanging in there: Their victory Friday pushed their record over .500.
• Commissioner Bud Selig has said there is no increased appetite for replay in baseball, but now baseball officials are aiming to use it more often.
• The Indians' bullpen is a strength, as Paul Hoynes writes.
• Billy Hamilton is not letting up.
• Handling icons such as Ichiro can be difficult, writes Joel Sherman.
• The Pirates are fielding a really fast outfield.
• Coors Field has not been kind to the Rockies this year.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Buster Olney asks what James Shields' actual worth is and whether he is he really an ace or innings eater.