Hot Stove Rundown: Do the Rays Need to Trade a Pitcher?

One of the most commonly held notions going into the 2012-13 hot stove is that the Tampa Bay Rays, those gluttons of pitching, need to trade away at least one of their starters to pick up a nice middle-of-the-order type bat. A cursory look at Tampa’s stats from a year ago give credence to this idea.

Tampa Bay had the best team ERA in baseball. They piled up the most strikeouts in baseball. The Rays even had the lowest batting average against any staff in baseball. Basically general manager Andrew Friedman and company have stockpiled arms like the Americans and Soviets had during the Cold War. Meanwhile, the Rays offense struggled to produce even meager run totals, resembling something similar to the Eastern block of Europe during the 1950s, to stick with the Cold War theme. They struggled to hit consistently for power, they were abysmal at hitting for average, and in the run scoring department they ranked a meager 18th in baseball, trailing every one of their AL East rivals.

The solution appears to be simple on the surface. Trade a little bit of the enviable starting pitching depth for a little bit of premium offense. The Rays won’t miss one of their frontline starters too much with all their depth and with some more pop at the plate, a playoff appearance and maybe even a parade could be coming to St. Pete in a matter of no time. But it’s not that simple. The Rays could stand pat and decide to peruse the free agent market for offense, hoping to turn trash into treasure yet another time. And if they deal a pitcher, who goes, who stays, and what do they want in return?

Could a team constructed like the 2012 Rays win the World Series?

Tampa Bay was able to win 90 games in spite of their mediocre offense because their pitching was completely unhittable. David Price is on his way to a top-3 finish in the Cy Young vote. James Shields had a 2nd half to be remembered. Jeremy Hellickson took home a Gold Glove to put on the shelf with his 2011 Rookie of the Year Award and all of the younger pitchers took a step forward.

The Rays managed the 2nd best run differential in the American League without having their best player for two-thirds of the season, which is no small feat, but were at home watching while a team over 100 runs worse made the playoffs. Giving this current rotation another go-around in 2013 would almost assuredly lead to another successful season, and if Lady Luck favors Tampa next year they could be the ones to strike it rich. After all, the 2012 World Champion Giants only scored 21 more runs over the season than Tampa did, relying on their all-world staff and dynamite bullpen to carry them to a title. One’s imagination doesn’t have to stretch to far to envision the Rays doing the same.

But there are some red flags here as well. BJ Upton, who hit 28 homers and stole 31 bags, is a free agent and will almost certainly sign elsewhere next year. Utility man Jeff Keppinger, who hit .325 in 2012, is also probably going to be putting on another team’s jersey in 2013. Carlos Pena and Luke Scott combined for 33 homers and will need to be replaced as well.

In fact, you could make the argument that the Rays only have 3 usable Major League hitters on their roster right now – Evan Longoria, Matt Joyce, and Ben Zobrist – and that’s not going to get the job done come March. Unless the penny-pinching Rays decide to suddenly open their wallets, real reinforcements won’t be on the way either, so trading from a position of strength seems like the most prudent course of action.

If Tampa Bay decides to make some calls, who should they deal?

Tampa Bay is in the ultra-rare, ultra-enviable position of having too much pitching. It’s a problem 25 other teams in the league would die to be having right now. The current Rays roster contains 7 different pitchers who would have starting jobs on at least half the teams in the Majors, which means they have plenty of options to work with.

Let’s start with the guys who aren’t going anywhere. Matt Moore, for all intents and purposes, should be untouchable. The Rays are on the hook for just $14 million for Moore through the 2016 season, a phenomenal bargain, and they hold team-friendly options on him until the end of 2019, which means the 23-year-old isn’t going anywhere. And unless the Rays want to start over from scratch, David Price, a durable left-handed workhorse with a Cy Young on his mantle, should remain at the top of their rotation as well. Tampa Bay is too intelligent to let one of the rarest commodities in baseball get away.

That leaves us with a group consisting of: James Shields, Jeff Niemann, Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Wade Davis, and Jeremy Hellickson. Niemann and Archer probably won’t command much on the market seeing as the former has struggled a bit against Major League hitters as a starter and was hurt in 2012 while the latter is just breaking into the bigs. The rest of the group has the potential to bring in a pretty nice haul, however, especially the group’s veteran, Shields.

James Shields has been one of the most durable and successful pitchers in the Majors over the past 6 seasons. The 30-year-old righty has hit the 200 inning, 12 win plateau each season and has only once failed to post an ERA+ above league average. He was torrid down the stretch last season, baffling hitters to the tune of a .188 opponent’s batting average while striking out nearly 5 batters per every walk. The Rays owe him $9 million, a bargain for a player who would likely command upwards of $13 million per season just for name alone and when you factor in his results that number jumps above $15 million. Shields age and salary make him the most likely pitcher to be traded from the Rays perspective, as the team holds a contract on him for just 2 more seasons before he hits the open market.

If dealt alone,  Shields would likely command a solid supporting hitter with some power, but if packaged with a prospect (of which the Rays have plenty) or one of the other pitchers (Cobb or Archer) he could bring in something more fearsome. Justin Upton is rumored to be on the market and Tampa Bay would be the perfect match for a team like Arizona, who could use some pitching to cover what was an atrocious back-end of their rotation. If also wouldn’t hurt Arizona to have a veteran like Shields to teach their young future aces, Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs, the ropes.

Jeremy Hellickson could also garner quite a bit of return on the hot stove this offseason. Hellickson, the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year, has proven to be quite the find in the middle of the Rays rotation during his first couple of seasons in the pros. Hellickson has thrown a little over 400 total Major League innings and he’s posted an ERA of 3.06, while striking out 6.1 batters per 9. His change-up is as good as any in the American League, when he’s got it working of course, and his fastball offers a nice change of pace in the low 90s. Hellickson is  going to be 26 next year, has yet to throw over 200 innings in one season,which means his arm should be in good shape, and he’s under team control until 2017, which could add up to a nice trade return. Hellickson may not be considered one of the elite pitchers in the Majors, but his value on the trade market could garner an elite return. Pitchers of this age and caliber rarely come along, and a starter-starved team, say Colorado, Los Angeles, or Cleveland could look to strike it big. If GM Andrew Friedman can land a legitimate middle of the order bat that’s also affordable, a trade would be worth it. The problem is those type of players are extremely rare and most are considered untouchable.

So, should the Rays pull the trigger and make a deal?

Tampa should tread carefully because trading away this type of young talent has the potential to backfire quickly. The Rays are in a position to win in the present and should be looking to better their team for 2013, rather than stockpiling talent for a rainy day. Shields is a half-step below a true ace in the Major Leagues. Cobb, and Davis all have the potential to turn into fine #2 or #3 starters. Shields is due to make $9 million next season, and the team has a $12 million dollar option they can exercise on him for 2014. That’s a bargain for  a pitchers who has thrown 200+ innings in each of the last 6 seasons while putting up an above average ERA+ in 5 of the 6. The other two are making peanuts compared to the value they provide.

The Rays have some big decisions coming up in the next couple of months. The franchise’s 2013 outlook could be greatly improved by a couple of smart moves just as easily as it could be set back by some foolish decisions. Andrew Friedman and the rest of the Rays front office have proven adept at making these choices since taking control of the team in 2007, so I expect nothing less than the correct choices this offseason — even if that means sitting tight on the strongest pitching staff in the big leagues.

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