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Rays Rumors: Why Is James Shields Available?

This is a question that a bunch of people are probably trying to figure out right now. According to John Perrotto of Baseball Prospectus, the Tampa Bay Rays have "quietly let it be known that right-hander Shields is available for the right price."

Buster Olney has already reported the Reds' apparent interest in Shields, which bodes with previous reports that the Reds were interested in the market's other ace, Ubaldo Jimenez. If the Rays are truly taking calls on the 29-year-old Shields, then we're really looking at a drastically different pitching market than the one that most people were predicting months ago.

At the beginning of the year, most baseball people were talking about how few top-level pitchers were seemingly available for trade, and that it would likely prevent any teams from making a Cliff Lee-like acquisition at this year's trade deadline. But over the course of just a couple weeks, we've already seen two major starting pitchers get their names floated onto the wire, at a time when elite pitching is truly at a premium.

So basically, that helps to explain why the Rays would even consider trading Shields. There's just nothing else like him out there. He's only 29, he's pitching like a Cy Young contender this year, and his contract beyond this season is downright sexy: three consecutive club options for 2012, 2013 and 2014 priced at $7 million, $9 million and $12 million, respectively. Even if he's not quite the massive steal that Jimenez likely will be, he's still a legitimate bargain at those salaries.

And while all of those things are what make Shields so appealing to Tampa, they're also the things that make him such a strong asset in trade discussions. Unlike Lee, he's far from a mere rental; acquiring Shields is a long-term move, one that shores up a top-of-the-rotation slot with one of the most durable pitchers in the game. It just also happens to be a major impact in-season addition as well.

Other than Jimenez, there aren't really many guys like this that can be had. On the off chance that the Rockies aren't as serious about dealing Jimenez as they're letting on, trading for Shields could be the lone legitimate opportunity for other teams to add an asset that's as rare as this one, given how much performance is getting packed into one roster spot at such a reasonable cost. Remember what the Rays did back in February, the last time that they traded a quality starting pitcher under team control for a while? Yeah, I'm guessing that Rays fans are enjoying Sam Fuld, Robinson Chirinos, Hak-Ju Lee, Chris Archer and Brandon Guyer right now.

Not to mention that the Rays have numerous guys that could fill Shields' spot. Wade Davis could easily return to the rotation once he comes off the disabled list, Andy Sonnanstine could be converted back to the rotation, or the recently called-up Alex Torres could pitch in the Rays' rotation instead of their bullpen. It's not like trading Shields would leave a gaping hole in their rotation for the rest of the season.

So really, this all boils down to 2011 contention. If the Rays don't see themselves as sure-fire contenders this year, trading Shields could allow them to add impact players and save money for the future so they can return to contention next season. But obviously if they think that they're still in it with both feet, trading Shields would completely undermine those efforts. Realistically, that means that a good deal of this situation is based around how the Rays evaluate themselves.

But if the Rays are on the fence about contending this year and some team is willing to pay a major premium to acquire Shields (Devin Mesoraco, Yonder Alonso, Yorman Rodriguez and a pitcher, anyone?), this could be another opportunity for the Rays to add another star player. It shouldn't be long before Matt Moore fills Shields' role, anyways.