Rays deal James Shields, get back high-ceiling prospects

US PRESSWIRE

All offseason, there's been word that the Rays were looking to trade a starting pitcher for an upgrade in the lineup. Now that it has happened, what does it all mean?

On Sunday night, the Rays and Royals pulled off a major, major trade that will be a stark referendum on both teams' processes. The Rays dealt rotation stalwart James Shields, starter-turned-reliever-turning-back-to-starter Wade Davis and a player to be named later (or cash considerations) to Kansas City for outfield uber-prospect Wil Myers, pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi, LHP Mike Montgomery, and rookie-level third baseman Patrick Leonard.

While the Rays are giving up starting rotation certainty, they're adding a couple of very serious prospects who are just about ready for the big leagues. While Myers and Odorizzi may not start 2013 on the big league roster, they're all but certain to end the season in St. Petersburg, and should be fixtures on the Rays until about the end of this decade.

While this may not be the largest trade of this offseason, or even the most surprising, this deal has all the hallmarks of a true blockbuster. It involves a franchise player (Shields) going to a new club where expectations are huge. It features at least one -- really two -- important prospects finding new homes (Myers, Odorizzi). It showcases a player who gets a change of scenery, and perhaps a new role, looking to re-establish value (Davis). And it involves two lottery-ticket young players who could hit, and provide a team with some unexpected value (Montgomery, Leonard).

Let's take a look at how this deal affects the Rays both in terms of players lost and prospects gained, shall we?

Goodbye, Big Game James (and Wade)

Off to Kansas City is the greatest pitcher in Rays history, James Shields, as well as starter-turned reliever Wade Davis. Rays fans all know "Big Game" James as the face of the Rays franchise through some dark years, and he's best known for his stamina and fearsome changeup. While Shields has been a fixture in Tampa for some time, his contract situation (where he's owed a little more than $22 million over the next two years) and the pitching depth in Tampa made him somewhat expendable. Davis, on the other hand, is owed about $7.5 million (not counting club options from 2015-2017) over the next two seasons.

While I'd argue that James Shields profiles as more of a No. 2 starter than an ace, that's really a question of semantics. What he is for sure, is a really good starting pitcher, on a friendly contract. His 2012 was excellent, and almost as good as his 2011. Not only did Big Game James throw over 227 innings over 33 starts, but he raised his strikeout percentage from 2011 (up to 23.6%), lowered his walk percentage (down to 6.1%) and increased his rate of ground balls (up a whole lot to 52.3%).

The ground ball percentage is actually the most interesting part of Shields's 2012, at least for me. Shields has always been a pitcher who has struggled to keep fly balls in the park, especially in key situations and on the road. While Kansas City's Kaufman stadium projects to limit homers in much the same way, if Shields allows hitters to hit fly balls, historically, they're on their way out of the park. But if Shields can continue to jack up that ground ball percentage, he'll limit the most damaging type of hit allowed. And that will undoubtedly be a good thing for Shields and the Royals.

Meanwhile, Wade Davis transformed in 2012 from an uninspiring starting pitcher to a devastating reliever. I know, stop me if you've heard that one before. Both his FIP and ERA dropped about two runs in the transition, which is even much more stark than one might usually expect when converting to relief. Almost all of this comes from a nearly-doubled strikeout rate, which jumped from 13.2% in 2011 to 30.6% in 2012. That's phenomenal. If he could keep that up, Davis would be an excellent late-inning reliever.

Of course, the Royals are hoping that he can take some of the improvements Davis made in 2012, and carry them back to the starting rotation. In all honestly, I like this idea very much. While Davis will definitely lose a mile per hour or two off his pitches in the transition, Davis was a very good starting pitcher in the minors, with very good peripheral numbers. As a starter, he'd be much more valuable than as a reliever, even if he was a very good one. And if the starting experiment doesn't work out, he can always go back to being a good, cheap setup man.

As a result of the trade, there is a chance, and not a bad one, that the Royals will be a good team in 2013. They've already got a rather potent offense, and young hitters Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez look to have room to improve. The biggest weakness Kansas City had was, of course, pitching. Well, James Shields is unquestionably the type of pitcher the Royals should be looking to acquire, rather than Jeremy Guthrie or Ervin Santana. And if Wade Davis can transition back to the rotation (where he desperately wants to be, I've heard), perhaps this can really push the Royals forward in 2013.

But baseball isn't always just about the upcoming year. The Royals aren't suddenly a powerhouse World Series contender for the upcoming season. They're really just an above-average team. And the cost, as I'm sure you've heard elsewhere, was steep.

The Rays' Return

Any discussion of this trade begins with Wil Myers, Minor League Baseball Player of the Year for 2012. Myers annihilated minor league pitching last season, on two levels. After starting off 2012 by abusing Double-A pitchers to the tune of 13 homers and a .351/.421/.739(!) slash line, Myers was promoted to Triple-A for the brunt of the 2012 season. Though he didn't hit quite as powerfully in the next 99 games, he still managed another 24 homers and a .304/.378/.554 line, good enough to give him 37 dingers on the year. If it weren't for the Royals' unnerving fascination with Jeff Francoeur and/or their desire to keep Myers down to have him work on his K-rate or keep his service time low, there's little doubt he could have been an effective major-league hitter at the age of 21.

Now, Myers isn't exactly Mike Trout, or even Bryce Harper. For one, Myers is still a strikeout machine. To strike out about a quarter of the time between Double-A and Triple-A is to invite criticism, even when you're closing in on a 40-homer campaign. Major league pitchers will exploit the holes in his swing and his approach if he doesn't make improvements. And as a former catcher, Myers still has some work to do to improve his defense in the outfield, though he projects at least as an average defender at either right field, center field, or even third base.

In the end, Myers is probably the best hitting prospect in the minor leagues today, and should be an impact hitter in the outfield for the Rays. The upper limit of his projection is a prototypical power-hitting corner outfielder with above-average defense, in other words, something a bit like Giancarlo Stanton or (gasp!) Ryan Braun. The low-end projection is probably something just a bit less exciting: a platoon outfielder with real pop against lefties and average corner defense. But I'd be much more surprised if he hit the low end of the projection than the high end, and the reality could be something more reasonable: a once-in-a-while All-Star rather than a perennial MVP candidate.

Jake Odorizzi's inclusion in this deal was a surprise, at least for me. Best known as one of the key pieces in the Royals' previous major pitching trade (remember Zack Greinke?), Odorizzi is a big-time starting pitching prospect with plenty of athleticism and a four-pitch repertoire. While Jake had a little difficulty in limited action in the bigs last season, he still projects as a mid-rotation starter who's about ready for prime time. His main goals need to be to work on his command and the development of his secondary pitches, as his fastball won't blow hitters away. But I see Odorizzi as an eventual middle-of-the-rotation starter, especially in pitcher-friendly Tropicana Stadium under the tutelage of Jim Hickey.

The sneaky part of this trade, thanks to Odorizzi's inclusion, is that the Rays basically still have the same starting pitching depth they had before dealing Shields. Of course, swapping out Shields for Odorizzi in a potential rotation certainly makes that pitching staff worse, but the team still has room to slot in new starters if one struggles or is injured, leaving the rotation an overall strength, not a weakness.

Mike Montgomery used to be the crown jewel of the pitching side of the Royals' stacked minor league system, as a left-handed power pitcher with staggering stuff. But after another disappointing year in Triple-A, where his strikeout rate fell and he showed an inability to prevent runners from scoring, the shine is officially off this once-promising prospect. Various talent evaluators have used terms like "a mess" and "completely lost" to describe how Montgomery looked during this past season. His mechanics seem to be coming apart at the seams, and his control and command has failed him. At 23, Montgomery is still young enough to develop, and retains flashes of great stuff, but he's no longer a top prospect. There's a chance he could recover and become a back-end starter or left-handed relief specialist, but don't hold your breath.

Finally, Patrick Leonard is a 19-year-old third base prospect who shined in the Appalachian League in 2012. Leonard is far enough away from the majors to be a real wild card, but Patrick Newman of FanGraphs listed him as the eighth-best hot corner prospect he personally scouted in 2012. That's nothing to sneeze at. He's got real power potential, and could end up a major-leaguer. Also, since he's entering his age-20 season without playing above Rookie level, he could end up as a gas station attendant. Wild card!

What's coming in has a much higher risk profile than what's leaving Tampa, make no mistake. One of Matt Moore, Chris Archer, or Jeremy Hellickson is going to need to develop into a true No. 2 starter behind David Price, and the sooner the better. It's incredibly unlikely that the Rays will fill the James Shield void with equal performance in 2013, no matter how well they young pitchers develop. And there is every chance that the young players the Rays have acquired could fail to develop, or fold under big league pressure.

At the same time, the potential reward on this Shields trade is also huge. This is a team that traded four years of guaranteed control over Davis and Shields, and turned it into about fourteen years of control over Myers and Odorizzi. The Rays moved from a position of strength (starting pitching) and picked up a valuable commodity: an extremely high-upside outfielder on a rookie contract. If Myers is even an average big-league regular, he could provide similar value to Shields over the next seven seasons, and if he's a star (which I think he could be), the deal will be a huge win for the Rays.

When you add in the fact that the Rays are saving nearly $30 million dollars over the next two seasons -- which is a huge amount for the cash-strapped Rays -- and a couple of lottery-ticket prospects, the deal looks like a no-brainer for baseball's most exciting front office. If the Rays put that money towards adding more pieces or extending David Price or Wil Myers, this could be a team that will be very competitive both in the short term, and all the way to 2020.

While the Royals were willing to pay big to win now, the Rays took a risk and let their 2013 (and perhaps 2014) performance take a hit in order to lock up potentially-huge assets for the next six years. If the Royals surge and make the playoffs, or even get as far as the ALCS, one might consider this deal a win for Dayton Moore and company. But given all the information, and all the history on the sides of Andrew Friedman and the Rays' brilliant front office, I'd be very, very happy if I were a Rays fan. This team takes the long view and finds inexpensive talent where it can.

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