Fantasy baseball owners are in large part a patient bunch, but it never helps to see a high-round pick like James Shields get rocked in his first start of 2012.

It took 105 pitches for Shields to get through just five innings against the New York Yankees on Friday—a team Shields had done surprisingly well against last year. Shields surrendered six earned runs against the Bronx Bombers, which was just three shy of his 2011 season total against them.

With all that being said, though, the Tampa Bay ace was one of the best pitchers in the American League last year, and it’s far too early to panic on the guy.

Shields is coming off arguably his best MLB season, with a career-best 225 strikeouts and 16 wins through 33 starts in 2011. He’s part of the most deadly rotation in baseball— his teammates include Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and David Price—and there’s plenty to like about Shields this year.

He’s a strikeout machine, and his division isn’t looking as intimidating as it once was.

The American League East division has always had a reputation of housing some of the biggest sluggers in the bigs. But while the Yankees still have an imposing lineup, Boston is still trying to fit the pieces in place, and Toronto and Baltimore haven’t changed much since last season. So there’s no reason to fear the “mighty” AL East when you start Shields against his division rivals this year—or when he plays any other teams for that matter.

Sure, the Tampa Bay starter has had some ups and downs in his career. I mean, he finished with an ERA over five in 2010. While some analysts will point to that fact and worry that Shields is just the newest flash in the pan, you can go back to any time in his career and notice that he’s always had “the stuff.”

The 2012 Rays are a whole different beast than their 2010 team, with the aforementioned deadly rotation and an offense featuring Carlos Pena (once again), a more experienced Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and newcomer Desmond Jennings. Long gone are the days of Tampa Bay fielding a mediocre baseball team. These Rays mean business, and Shields is going to be a big part of their success this year.

In fantasy baseball, you have to wear through the early pains of all you drafted for at least the first month of the season, especially when it’s a superstar like Shields. As many analysts will tell you during April, this fantasy sport we love is a marathon, not a race. You don’t drop great players just because they hit the disabled list, and you certainly don’t drop your best or second-best pitcher due to one or two bad starts out of the gate.

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