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Will the Rays Trade James Shields?

One of the best pitchers available this off-season may have just been pulled off the market. With Matt Moore expected to grab a spot in the rotation, many expected James Shields to be available this off-season. That may no longer be the case, however, as CBS Sports’ Danny Knobler reported the Tampa Bay Rays are “dead-set against trading Shields.” While the Rays could choose to trade a starter other than Shields to free up a spot for Moore, Shields would provide the best return. With Moore ready to enter the rotation, are the Rays making a mistake by taking Shields off the market?

If the Rays decide to keep Shields, it’s tough to really criticize them. Shields is coming off his best season as a pro — in which he racked up eleven complete games. On top of that, Shields is still under team control until 2014, is relatively cheap and is pretty damn good. The Rays were a playoff team in 2011, and keeping Shields makes them a strong threat make a run at the post-season in 2012. With Shields, the Rays seem to have all the leverage.

Because of that, this report may a smokescreen. The Rays front office rarely reveals or leaks their strategies to the media. The fact that this report came out should be somewhat of a red flag to fans that follow the Rays closely. This has led to some of the Rays’ fans at FanGraphs speculating that this report may be an instance of the Rays trying to boost Shields’ value before trading him away. If this report is nothing more than a ploy to get more value in a Shields deal, it’s another savvy move by one of the best front offices in baseball.

The Rays also have a history of this type of behavior. Last off-season, the team faced an eerily similar situation with Matt Garza. Even though the Rays had leverage with Garza, they realized he was the pitcher that could bring back the biggest return in a trade. In order to get their young prospect into the rotation — in this case, Jeremy Hellickson — the Rays dealt Shields Garza to the Chicago Cubs for a bevy of prospects.

The Rays used a different tactic in the media with Garza — letting teams know he was available — which may have caused teams to offer more competitive packages for Garza. As a result, some analysts thought the Rays got a better package of prospects for Garza than the Kansas City Royals received for Zack Greinke — a superior pitcher.

No matter what they decide to do, this seems like a win-win situation for the Rays. If they actually want to keep Shields, they retain a good, cheap starter for another season. Shields presence makes the rotation stronger and gives the Rays a good chance at making a run at the post-season next year. If this report is nothing more than a ploy to get a team to break the bank for Shields, that obviously has huge benefits for the Rays. Teams looking to acquire Shields should be cautious. As the Rays have already shown, when they have leverage, they are one of the most dangerous front offices in baseball.