In 2010, the Tampa Bay Rays opened the season with a payroll just a little above that of the Kansas City Royals. At $72 million, the Rays were by no means spending themselves silly, but their payroll ranked 19th and so the number didn't draw attention to itself.
In 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays again opened the season with a payroll just a little above that of the Kansas City Royals. But this time, instead of there being 18 teams above them, there were 28 teams above them, as the Rays' payroll fell all the way to $41 million and 29th overall. The Rays never spent big, but coming into the year they all but stopped spending entirely.
And there's no reason now to expect a big hike. The Rays' payroll is almost certain to remain near the bottom for a good long while.
I'm not just bringing this up for no reason, by the way. I'm bringing this up because the Rays have a good pitcher named James Shields, and James Shields is getting more expensive.
Shields cost the Rays about $4.25 million in 2011. His contract includes options through 2014, but those options increase in value, from more than $7 million in 2012 to more than $9 million in 2013 to more than $12 million in 2014. With Shields set to cost more and more money, it makes sense that his name has come up in trade rumors more and more often.
But here's Danny Knobler, with either some cold water, if you're rooting for a James Shields trade, or some...warm...water? if you're not rooting for a James Shields trade.
A bunch of teams have been linked to Shields - and why wouldn't they be? - but, at least for now, the sense is that James Shields isn't on the market.
There are, obviously, good reasons for the Rays to keep Shields. First and foremost, he's a very valuable pitcher. He's a valuable pitcher on a team set to contend now and down the road. To move Shields would be to subtract from a team that could make the playoffs, which is kind of the opposite of the whole idea. Also, Shields is pricey by the Rays' standards, but he's actually signed to a team-friendly contract, and while the Rays would presumably like to make room in the rotation for Matt Moore, there are other guys that can move. Other guys who aren't as good as Shields.
Of course, what I suspect is that, while the Rays won't go out of their way to trade Shields, they will pay very close attention to the offers that roll in. There will be a lot of offers, because the off-season starting pitcher market is pretty thin, and it may be that some offer is particularly compelling. The Rays know that Shields is good, but they also know that he's expensive for them, and that he has a lot of trade value. Like anybody in baseball, I'm sure that Shields is available for the right price.
The most interesting part of all this might be the second half of Knobler's tweet. The Jeremy Hellickson part. Hellickson is one of the top contenders for the American League Rookie of the Year award. The 24-year-old righty finished 13-10 with a stellar 2.95 ERA, and before he emerged he was considered one of baseball's top prospects. But you don't have to dig very deep to find some concerns. Hellickson finished with a slightly higher walk rate than Brandon Morrow. He finished with a lower strikeout rate than Jason Vargas and Freddy Garcia. His FIP, if you're into FIP, ranked between Mike Pelfrey and Joel Piñeiro.
Hellickson could improve, because this was his first full major-league season. But he wasn't nearly as good as his ERA, and the Rays might try to capitalize on his success by moving him now, instead of waiting to see if his ERA regresses to some of his other numbers.
But now I'm engaging in speculation, and this is drifting off topic. The original topic was James Shields. The Rays do not seem particularly motivated to trade James Shields. They shouldn't be, because the Rays are good, James Shields is good, and James Shields isn't that expensive. But they could trade him still, despite the impression they're giving, because he's a highly desirable asset at a position of need. We'll see. Isn't that just the least satisfying conclusion ever?