Despite struggles, Shields in demand

As Shields struggles, Angels stay in hot pursuit. Here's why.

Tampa Bay Rays right-hander James Shields, a popular name on the trade market, has a 6.15 ERA in his last seven starts.

Yet, while some clubs are concerned that he may be repeating his disappointing 2010 season, the Los Angeles Angels are undeterred, major-league sources say.

That doesn’t mean the Angels will acquire Shields; they also are in the mix for Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Zack Greinke, among other starting pitchers.

But an argument can be made that Shields (8-7, 4.52), is not pitching much differently than the guy who finished third in the AL Cy Young voting last year.

His stuff is good, according to scouts. His average fastball velocity is a career-high 91.8 mph, according to fangraphs.com. His strikeout rate of 8.8 per nine innings and his groundball rate of 65.7 percent both are career-highs.

And here’s the big one: Opponents, benefiting in part from the Rays’ surprisingly shoddy defense, are batting .342 on balls in play, nearly 50 points above the league average.

Shields fares quite well in xFIP – Expected Fielding Independent Pitching – a statistic that attempts to isolate a pitcher’s ability by separating it from his defense and estimating what his home-run rate should be.

In fact, Shields’ current xFIP would be the second-lowest of his career, behind only last season.

Put him on the Angels – a team that ranks third in the majors in converting balls in play into outs – and suddenly everyone’s perception of Shields might change.

So, is all of this simply bad luck?

Well, Shields is issuing a career-high 2.9 walks per nine innings, inflating his WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) to 1.46, which matches his career-high from 2010.

Pitch selection also is a problem for Shields, who is relying too heavily on his cut fastball, according to one scout.

Still, teams that used advanced statistics – and the Angels, under first-year GM Jerry Dipoto, have now become one of those teams – are more forgiving of Shields’ performance than the average fan might be.

The Texas Rangers, Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals are among the other clubs with varying levels of interest in Shields, according to major-league sources.

The Rays are fielding offers for a number of their starting pitchers, but ultimately might stand pat. Third baseman Evan Longoria is expected back soon from a partially torn left hamstring, and the team is only 2½ games back in the race for the second wild card.

One rival executive said he would take Shields as long as he could get him out of the offensively-oriented AL East.

Another points out that Shields has bounced back from such struggles before, rebounding from a 5.18 ERA in 2010 to post a 2.82 ERA in ’11.

A third exec, however, said that Shields’ problems can not be attributed solely to outside factors.

“It can’t always be defense. It can’t always be other things,” the exec said. “I buy that to a certain degree. I don’t buy it totally.”

Yet Shields, even during his brilliant 2011 season, had a seven-game stretch not unlike the one he is in now. From July 16 to Aug. 21, he produced a 5.11 ERA and allowed eight home runs in 49 1/3 innings.

The Angels like him – a lot.

“He fits them nicely,” one scout said of Shields, who is from Santa Clarita County, about 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

“SoCal kid. AL East experience, postseason experience, top-of-the-rotation experience, established cost.”

Shields is earning $7 million this season, with a $9 million club option for next season and a $12 million club option for 2013.

The Angels at the end of the season must decide on club options for right-handers Dan Haren ($15.5 million) and Ervin Santana ($13 million). Shields could replace either long term.

Of course, he also would be a terrific fit for a National League team with a strong defense – the Dodgers, for example, rank eighth in the majors in converting balls in play into outs.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And to certain clubs, Shields’ problems are only skin deep.
 

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