Rays put future first with Shields

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Columnist
Published September 20, 2007

Somewhere, there is controversy to be had.

In some neighborhood bar in New England, the decision to shelve James Shields for the season should stir emotions and provoke debate. On some distant radio station in the Northeast, they can cry about the integrity of the game.

But not here.

Here, it is the right move.

James Shields is a rare commodity in Tampa Bay, and you do not take unnecessary risks with something so valuable as his pitching arm. The choice really is that obvious, and the decision that simple.

Do not whine to me about the Rays coddling Shields. He has already thrown 215 innings this season, the fifth-largest workload in the majors. Of the 10 pitchers with the most innings, none is as young as Shields.

And do not come at me with conspiracy theories. Shields, 25, has no incentives in his contract that will be affected by the number of innings he pitches in 2007. And, since he is not yet eligible for arbitration, it does not impact his 2008 contract.

This is not about anything other than protecting an investment. And that's not a bad thing.

The Phillies are in the middle of a pennant race and they had to shut down Cole Hamels for a month because his arm could not handle the number of innings he was throwing. Jeremy Bonderman is missing the final month of the season in Detroit.

Do you suppose the Cubs wish they had handled things differently with Mark Prior? Or how about Kerry Wood?

Nothing in this game is as fragile as the pitching arm of a 22-, 23- or 24-year-old and it would be ridiculously irresponsible of the Rays to act as if getting their 64th win was somehow more important than Shields' future.

Between them, Shields and Scott Kazmir have thrown more than 410 innings. Do you know how many other teams have a pair of pitchers who have accounted for more innings? Three. That means the Rays have asked more out of their top two starters than 26 other teams. Hard to call the Rays pansies when you look at it from that perspective.

"We've done a lot of research on player injuries and, obviously, pitchers make up a very large percentage of that list," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "We feel like Jamie has put himself in a position to build off this next year and be able to be extremely strong down the stretch for us.

"There's no hard and fast rule, but we feel this shifts the odds in our favor in terms of avoiding an injury. Even if it's by the slightest margin, it makes all the sense in the world."

Let's put it in another context:

Say the Buccaneers are losing 38-3 in the fourth quarter against the Rams on Sunday. Would you want to see Joey Galloway or Jeff Garcia still on the field? Of course not. You do not risk tomorrow's promise for appearance's sake today.

Now, having said that, could the Rays have handled the situation better? Probably. Shields should not have found out about this the day before pitching a game near his hometown. The Rays have been heading in this direction for weeks, and did not need to wait until 48 hours before Shields' scheduled start to make this decision.

And maybe it would be wise for the Rays to put in a courtesy call to the Red Sox to explain their decision. By skipping Shields' final two starts, the Rays will potentially have an impact on the American League postseason.

Shields was scheduled to start Wednesday against Anaheim, which is battling Boston for homefield advantage in the AL. His final start was to come against the Yankees, who are chasing the Red Sox in the East. In both situations, the Rays will have put a lesser pitcher on the mound against opponents who are chasing Boston.

In a similar situation this week, Houston officials called the Cubs to explain why they changed their rotation before a series against Milwaukee.

Now, do the Rays owe the Red Sox an explanation? No, but it might smooth over a potential snit.

After all, how much could the Red Sox argue? Clay Buchholz went 18 days between starts after throwing a no-hitter because the Red Sox wanted to limit the number of innings the 23-year-old pitches this season.

The bottom line is this is the right decision for the Rays. It is not financial - the Rays have zero to gain. It is not popular - neither Shields nor Tampa Bay fans seem happy. And it is not a short-term choice - it could cost wins on Joe Maddon's managerial record. So why are the Rays doing it? Because it's the right thing to do.

In a way, this is no different than any tough decision made by a parent.

Sometimes you have to say no because it's in a child's best interest.

Whether they like it or not.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.