With the trade deadline approaching, the Reds appear to be aggressively looking for anyone who can potentially help them in the last two months of the 2011 season, and Chone Figgins too. That makes a lot of sense (well, not the Figgins part), as the defending N.L. Central champions currently sit at 4.5 games back in the highly competitive division and a whopping 9 games behind the Braves in the wild card standings. And the Reds aren’t shying away from big names either, as reports last week had them talking to the Rockies about acquiring Ubaldo Jimenez. The Rockies asking price for their ace is incredibly high, however, and Ubaldo probably isn’t going anywhere this year.

On the other hand, reports that the Rays are willing to trade starter James Shields are much more interesting, if only because I’m pretty sure the Rays are serious about it, and would like to work out a deal with someone this month. Shields is currently having a career year, putting him at peak value, and the Rays are quickly finding themselves fringe contenders at best as the Yankees and Red Sox pull away from them. The Rays have a talented young rotation and a lot of pitching talent in the minors, including the best pitching prospect in baseball in Matt Moore, but also have a lot of holes offensively they’d like to fill, and trading Shields could go a long way to that.

This is where things get interesting, because the Rays two most obvious holes are at first base and catcher, which makes Cincinnati, with Yonder Alonso and Devin Mesoraco/Yasmani Grandal to dangle, a very attractive trade partner. And the Reds, whose starters currently have the worst FIP and 4th worst xFIP in the National League, could certainly use Shields, who currently boasts a 3.17 FIP in a division that includes two of the best offenses in baseball, and a 3.92 mark for his career. If you assume those numbers will improve at the margins as he moves from the A.L. East to the N.L. Central, there’s no question that Shields could represent a legitimate anchor for the Reds’ rotation.

Additionally, Shields is far from a rental, as he’s currently under team control through 2014, on a series of three club options between now and then. And if that wasn’t enough, the buyouts for those options actually get smaller each year, culminating in a $1 million buyout of a $12 million option after 2013. It’s an absurdly team friendly contract that gives whomever has Shields at the time a ton of flexibility. So rather then trading away top prospects for a rental who may or may not carry you to the 2011 playoffs, whomever lands Shields will be acquiring a durable innings eater with the ability to dominate a game on any given night who will be making a below market value salary for the next 3 seasons.

And while I don’t want to be too much of a downer, the 5 ton elephant in the room for the Reds is Joey Votto’s contract. The Reds only signed the MVP to a 3 year deal last winter, giving them payroll stability through Votto’s arbitration years, but not buying out any of his potential free agent years. To be blunt, with his arbitration year salary guaranteed, there’s no reason for Votto to accept a discount on any of the years in which he’s eligible for free agency, and once he hits the market all bets are off. If I were the GM of the Reds, I would be operating under the assumption that the 2013 season will be Votto’s last in Cincinnati, and doing everything I could to maximize wins between now and then.

A deal for Shields would certainly be pricey. I can’t see the Rays giving him up without at least getting Mesoraco or Alonso and Grandal, and I can even see them demanding Mesoraco and Alonso in return, given his contract. In either case, I still think it’s a good deal for the Reds. It only improves the big league team at the margins over the next few seasons, and in the worst case scenario the Reds would still have Grandal and Ryan Hanigan behind the plate in the organization. That’s not too shabby. It’s a near perfect fit for both teams.