This offseason, the biggest question for the Rays is whether they will trade a starting pitcher to upgrade their offseason to upgrade their offense and replenish their minor league system. The discussion about who the Rays should trade has always centered around James Shields. But according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, Shields is not the Rays starting pitcher generating the most trade interest- it’s Jeremy Hellickson. Hellickson, 25, will not even be arbitration-eligible until after next season but has viewed as a player the Rays could look to trade because Scott Boras is his agent and it seems very unlikely that he’s going to sign a team-friendly contract extension like those signed by players like Shields, Evan Longoria, and Matt Moore. Should the Rays really consider trading Hellickson?
From a sabermetric standpoint, some people would tell you that Jeremy Hellickson is a time bomb waiting to go off. The past two seasons, Hellickson has managed an outstanding 3.02 ERA but just a 5.9 K/9, a 3.2 BB/9, and a 1.1 HR/9. He has not managed to strike out even twice as many batters as he has walked and he allowed too many home runs. His FIP, which is a formula that attempts to measure “true ERA” by factoring in strikeouts, walks (and hit-by-pitches), and home runs allowed, has Hellickson at 4.57, which would mean that his outstanding performance is a major fluke. But simply quoting Hellickson’s FIP (and its more complicated forms xFIP, SIERA, etc.) would be ignoring the improvements Hellickson has made as a pitcher.
In 2011, Hellickson posted a 5.6 K/9, a 3.4 BB/9, and a 1.0 HR/9. In 2012, Hellickson managed a 6.3 K/9, a 3.0 BB/9, and a 1.3 HR/9, improving in strikeout rate and walk rate while slipping quite a bit in homer rate. That led Hellickson’s FIP to actually rise from 4.49 to 4.65, but his xFIP went down from 4.82 to 4.30. Hellickson was unlucky that his homer rate was as bad as it was as a higher percentage of flyballs went for home runs that the average player, and that shifts the focus back to his strikeout to walk ratio. Was that a fluke? The answer is no. The difference between 2011 and 2012 for Hellickson was his curveball. According to Brooks Baseball, Hellickson threw his curveball around the same amount of the time from 2011 to 2012, 11% of his pitches to 12%, but threw it for a strike a higher proportion of the time, 57.0% compared to 51.1%, generated a higher rate of swings-and-misses, 14.5% to 13.0%, and vastly improved his groundball to flyball on the pitch, from 1.06 to 1 all the way to 5.43 to 1. Watching Hellickson the past couple of years, he has never been an overpowering pitcher and has always depended on forcing weak contact. But when Hellickson’s curveball was on to go along with his fastball and changeup, he looked overpowering. Hellickson has just begun to harness his curveball, and the more it becomes a weapon the more his fastball and changeup will play up as well. Hellickson may have been lucky to some extent the past couple of years, but the improvements he is making as a pitcher give him the ability to cancel out whatever regression he may have and continue to put up sparkling ERAs.
The Rays will not be trading Jeremy Hellickson because they think he’s about to collapse and they want to get maximum value for him before that happens. Whether a trade materializes will instead have to do with whether the Rays can receive enough value in return for such a promising young pitcher. Hellickson’s trade value may be even higher than Shields’ because he’s under team control for double as many years, four compared to two, ten times cheaper because he isn’t even arbitration-eligible yet, and because although he doesn’t have Shields’ track record, he’s still a very good major league pitcher. The Rays are in no rush to trade Hellickson. Shields is set to make 10.25 million dollars this season, the highest single-season salary in Rays history. The Rays know that they can easily afford Hellickson for the next couple of years. The Rays will only trade Hellickson is the right trade package of players comes along in a trade. And considering how much potential Hellickson has and how much longer the Rays have Hellickson, they may never get a trade offer that reaches the standards they’re looking for. There’s a chance that Jeremy Hellickson gets traded this offseason, but if you’re looking for the most likely Rays starter to be traded, it’s Shields- even if Hellickson is generating more interest. The Rays know what they have in Hellickson and it will be awfully tough for them to trade him away.