The industrywide assumption is that if the Tampa Bay Rays fall out of contention, the pitcher they will trade is right-hander James Shields.
The Rays, deep in starting pitching, are open to moving any of their right-handed starters, major league sources say.
A trade of Shields or Jeremy Hellickson likely would signal that the team is conceding the season. A trade of Wade Davis, Alex Cobb or Chris Archer, however, would not.
For now, the Rays are in limbo, trying to ascertain when third baseman Evan Longoria will return from his left hamstring injury.
If the answer is sooner rather than later, the Rays probably will not sell — right fielder Matt Joyce is expected back from his strained left oblique shortly, and the team is only one game out in the wild-card race.
The Rays led the AL East with a 15-8 record before Longoria was injured. They’re 31-36 since, playing well below their usual standards, particularly on defense.
The team’s lackluster fielding is one reason that Shields, 8-6 with a 4.44 ERA, has regressed after his career-best 2011 season, allowing 10 or more hits in four straight starts.
Opponents are batting .347 on balls in play against Shields; the major league average is .293. However, pitch selection also is a problem for Shields; he is relying too heavily on his cut fastball, one scout said.
Shields, 30, is earning $7 million this season, and his contract includes a $9 million club option for 2013 and a $12 million club option for ’14.
Davis, 26, is signed through ’14 with club options through ’17. Hellickson, 25, is under club control through ’16, and the Rays can retain Cobb, 24, and Archer, 23, through at least ’17.
ATHLETICS’ COLON: GOING NOWHERE?
The Athletics lead the AL in ERA, and that’s with three starting pitchers — right-hander Brandon McCarthy and lefties Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden — on the disabled list.
All three are expected back soon, creating a logjam that many expect will lead to a trade of right-hander Bartolo Colon.
The A’s, though, have other ideas.
A source with knowledge of the Athletics’ thinking says it is “highly unlikely” that the team will move the veteran, who has proved quite a bargain for $2 million.
The A’s, according to the source, consider Colon more valuable to them than the one or two mid-level prospects he might bring in return. The team also might try to re-sign Colon at the end of the season.
It would not be difficult for the Athletics to create room for their injured pitchers, or possibly trade one of them.
The team has three rookies in its rotation (lefty Tommy Milone and right-handers Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin) as well as a journeyman lefty, Travis Blackley.
Of course, none has an ERA higher than 3.54.
HOW THE ANGELS COULD GRAB GREINKE
Baseball America ranked the Angels’ farm system 19th out of 30 at the start of the season, but that doesn’t mean the team would stand little chance of trading for an elite pitcher such as Brewers right-hander Zack Greinke or Phillies lefty Cole Hamels.
Rival executives say the Angels have enough young talent to pull off such a deal. One said that a package of outfielder Peter Bourjos and right-hander Garrett Richards would be “a steal” for Greinke, particularly if the Angels signed Greinke long-term. Another executive cited Double A shortstop Jean Segura and Class A third baseman Kaleb Cowart as attractive talents.
The Angels are reluctant to trade Bourjos and Richards, but the uncertain physical condition of right-hander Dan Haren and continued struggles of righty Ervin Santana could push them to part with future assets.
The team also is seeking a left-handed reliever, according to a major league source, and perhaps could ask for the Brewers’ Manny Parra along with Greinke. Parra has held left-handed hitters to a .187 batting average and .483 OPS, allowing just three extra-base hits in 75 at-bats.
DEMPSTER MARKET HEATING UP
The Cubs are exchanging names with teams interested in right-hander Ryan Dempster, and the Dodgers, Tigers, Braves and Red Sox all remain in the mix, major-league sources say.
The Red Sox, according to a source, maintain equal or greater interest in Cubs right-hander Matt Garza, who is under club control through next season. Dempster, as a potential free agent, would come at a lower acquisition cost.
The Braves, who sound as if they might be backing off Greinke, also are a logical suitor for Dempster. The Cubs are willing to pay the vast majority of Dempster’s salary in exchange for better prospects — condition that likely would appeal to a team as budget-conscious as the Braves.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, are thin in upper-level position prospects, but rival executives say they could construct a Dempster trade with some of their pitching at Double A.
Dempster, as a player with 10 years of service, five with the same club, has the right to reject any deal. One of his friends says the pitcher likely would approve a trade to the Red Sox, but considers the Dodgers “a better fit.”
D-BACKS’ UPTON: PART OF THE JAYS’ PATTERN?
Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos specializes in acquiring distressed assets under long-term control. Shortstop Yunel Escobar fit that description. So did center fielder Colby Rasmus.
Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton would, too.
The Jays are one of the teams interested in Upton, sources say, and they’re deep enough in prospects to pull off a blockbuster. But Anthopoulos, as always, is operating on multiple fronts, pursuing numerous players and willing to listen on all of his own.
The trade market for Upton has yet to fully develop, and it’s possible the Diamondbacks will not engage in serious talks until the offseason, when they could engage a greater number of suitors.
The Pirates have shown considerable interest, but the D-Backs do not see a fit, sources say. The Rangers are another possibility, but currently are deep in outfielders. They might grow more interested in Upton if they lose Josh Hamilton as a free agent this winter.
AROUND THE HORN
• The Jays’ three-year, $29 million signing of Edwin Encarnacion might seem high, considering that Josh Willingham received a three-year, $21 million deal from the Twins as a free agent last offseason.
On the other hand . . .
Encarnacion, 29, is four years younger than Willingham. He dramatically improved his walk rate in the second half of last season and made changes to his swing this season. The Jays also would have found it difficult to replace him —the free-agent market for DHs this offseason figures to be quite thin.
• The Rangers are almost certain to upgrade their bench, perhaps by trading catcher Yorvit Torrealba and finding a superior replacement, major league sources say.
Torrealba, earning $3.25 million, is batting only .212 with a .579 OPS.
• Brewers left-hander Randy Wolf is 2-6 with a 5.80 ERA, but could make sense as a fallback position for the Dodgers, who twice signed him as a free agent.
The Brewers, if they sell, likely would cover the majority of Wolf’s remaining salary and $1.5 million buyout, and probably wouldn’t require much in return.
• The Giants’ search for a reliever is hardly a surprise considering that they’ve been without their closer, Brian Wilson, virtually all season.
Here’s a stat that might surprise you, considering the perceived strength of the Giants’ bullpen: The combined strikeout rate of their relievers is the third-lowest in the NL.