Shields gets four-year, $11.25M contract from Rays

Updated: January 23, 2008, 4:32 PM ET
Associated Press

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Rays are counting on James Shields to blossom into one of the top pitchers in the American League.

The 26-year-old right-hander, who has less than two full seasons of experience in the majors, agreed Wednesday to a $11.25 million, four-year contract.

Shields' deal includes three team options that could make it worth about $38 million over seven years. Performance bonuses could boost the value to approximately $44 million.

"This signing further signifies our commitment to building and sustaining a championship level team," Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "We feel like Jamie is the kind of player and person who can help lead us to that goal."

Friedman said Shields' "talent, work ethic and character" were factors in the decision to take the unusual step of negotiating a multiyear deal even though the club's No. 2 starter was two seasons away from becoming arbitration-eligible and five years from free agency.

The option seasons cover what would have been the pitcher's final arbitration year and the first two years he would have been eligible for free agency.

Selected by Tampa Bay in the 16th round of the 2000 draft, Shields was 12-8 with a 3.85 ERA in his first full season in the majors last year. He was 10th in the AL in innings pitched (215) and had an impressive strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 184 to 36 that was second in the majors behind C.C. Sabathia's 209 to 37.

The signing is the latest bold move in an offseason of change for the Rays, who are trying to reinvent themselves under principal owner Stuart Sternberg, who took control of the team a little more than two years ago.

The franchise modified its nickname and introduced new team colors and uniforms, unveiled plans to build a $450 million waterfront stadium in downtown St. Petersburg, and boosted one of the lowest payrolls in baseball with lucrative deals for Shields, AL comeback player of the year Carlos Pena and AL strikeout champion Scott Kazmir.

Shields, noting previous ownership was not always committed to winning, likes the direction of the team.

"I've been watching this organization for the last eight years. We've gone through a lot of ups and downs, more downs than ups," he said. "I think everything is starting to look good now."

The right-hander is 18-16 with a 4.21 in 52 career starts. He averaged 6.93 innings pitched per start in 2007, tied with Jake Peavy for third-best in the majors behind Roy Halladay (7.26) and Sabathia (7.06).

Shields, who turned 26 last month, also was at his best late in the season, going 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA in his last eight starts. He left 21 of his 31 starts with Tampa Bay either leading or tied, and was fourth in fewest walks per nine innings (1.51) and sixth in fewest base runners per nine innings (10.38).

Friedman conceded it's risky signing pitchers to long-term deals because of the prospect of injuries, however he's confident this is a gamble that will pay off for the Rays.

It also sends a message that Tampa Bay is more serious than ever about winning soon.

"Our longstanding goal is to be a destination spot where players want to come to play, where people want to come to work," Friedman said. "Obviously, two years ago that wasn't the case, even with our own players."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press