Shields hopes to return to Rays as mainstay

Shields hopes to return to Rays as mainstay

ST. PETERSBURG -- James Shields wants to be with the Rays in 2012.

But the right-hander turns 30 on Dec. 20, so something will have to give.

The Rays have started a pitcher under the age of 30 for their past 764 games, a modern Major League record. Previously, the record stood at 704 and was held by the 1913-17 Washington Senators, whose staff included Hall of Famer Walter Johnson.

The previous start by a Rays pitcher 30 or older was by right-hander Jae Seo, who started on his 30th birthday on May 24, 2007, against the Mariners. Prior to that, the Rays hadn't started a pitcher 30 or over since 32-year-old left-hander Mark Hendrickson started against the Braves on June 25, 2006. That means the Rays have not started a pitcher beyond his 30th birthday in their past 897 games -- more than five years ago.

Shields laughed when reminded of the fact that the streak will end if he returns in 2012.

"That's one streak I'm hoping ends," he said.

Every offseason brings uncertainty, and given the fact the Rays are prone to prune their payroll, Shields could be trade bait. The senior member of the Rays' rotation was named to his first All-Star team in 2011, en route to his best Major League season. He went 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA, 225 strikeouts, 11 complete games and four shutouts. Such numbers would make an attractive addition to any Major League staff. However, based on what Shields gave the Rays in 2011 -- and has given the organization since his arrival in 2006 -- there's a good chance he'll be back. On top of that, the Rays have a $7 million option on him for 2012, which is reasonable in today's climate.

"I want to be here next year, definitely," Shields said. "I would like to be here for the rest of my career if I could."

Much of the speculation that Shields might get shipped elsewhere hinges on the depth of the Rays' starting rotation, which entered the offseason looking as though it was at least eight-deep -- including phenom Matt Moore. Given the Rays' occasionally anemic offense, much of the speculation has focused on trading one of the starters to acquire the magic bat for the middle of the lineup. However, while anything can happen during the offseason, the Rays aren't actively shopping any of the group, based on their recognition of who they are and what has been successful in their team model, which is based on pitching and defense.

Listening to Andrew Friedman, one quickly gets the idea from the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations that trading anybody from the group of starters is a far-fetched prospect. Such a deal could potentially compromise the team model.

"You look at teams around the league and teams that broke camp thinking they had an ample amount of starting pitching depth," Friedman said. "And that [thinking] got exposed. That's something we can't have happen and have a successful season."

In addition to loving the Tampa Bay area, Shields wants to return because he loves the team. He can't hide his enthusiasm for the future of the Rays, particularly after the magic that happened for the 2011 team.

"I'll tell you what -- most of the predictions before the season didn't have us going to the playoffs this season," Shields said. "And we did it. If we can add a few pieces and not lose too many pieces, I think we have a pretty good shot at going back to the playoffs next year. I'm pretty excited about it and everything that's going on with the organization. We'll see what happens during this offseason."

Shields surpassed 200 innings for the fifth consecutive season in 2011, logging the highest number of innings of his career (249 1/3) while making 33 regular season starts. He makes no bones about it -- his offseason training has enabled him to have great durability.

In a week or two, he will begin the torturous workouts again.

"Every year, I'm trying to add something new to my offseason regimen," Shields said. "I'm going to sit down and evaluate everything that I need to do and everything that was successful for me this year. Mix it all in together. Every year you have to change something. There's always something you can do to improve."

Of course, one difference between this offseason and the one that followed the 2010 season will be the work he does on his mechanics. Shields' 2010 season saw him go 13-15 with a 5.18 ERA and no complete games, prompting him to address his mechanics. Fortunately for Shields and the Rays, he figured it all out during the offseason and then reaped the benefits this past year. So this, offseason Shields won't be looking to find something he'd lost -- he'll be working to maintain what he'd found.

"I felt really good as far as mechanics," Shields said. "The base is there, so now that I know what I need to get done, I'll work on getting that muscle memory ready for next season."

But those workouts haven't started just yet, which leaves a little time for some golf, a sport he loves.

"Right now I'm just thinking about hitting the links and relaxing a little bit," Shields said.

Shields, long with Rays teammates Johnny Damon, B.J. Upton and David Price, will travel to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., this week to play alongside PGA Tour professionals in the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic.

"It's definitely different nerves," Shields said. "I don't have as much confidence hitting a ball down the fairway as I do throwing a strike. It's a lot of fun, though. I'll go out there and hack it up. Hopefully I won't kill anybody, and that will be a success."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.