Heading into the 2013 season, Jeremy Hellickson was the logical choice to replace James Shields as the second starter for the Rays. He had already put together two solid seasons, with a 27-21 record and a 3.06 ERA. The biggest knock against Hellickson was that he did not strike out as many hitters as one would expect given his stuff and the disparity in speeds on his pitches. Even though some regression had to be expected given his low batting average on balls in play against, it still appeared as though he may be set up for a solid 2013 season.
Instead, Hellickson cratered. Even with a ten start stretch where he was 8-1 with a 3.17 ERA, Hellickson ended the season with a 12-10 record with a 5.17 ERA. Even though some regression had to be expected given his performances in 2011 and 2012, no one expected this type of season. Yet, hidden in his struggles, there were still a few promising signs. Hellickson’s strikeout rate improved to a career best 6.9 per nine innings, and he pitched much better after being recalled from his mental hiatus.
Despite his rough season, Hellickson was the starter for Game Four in the ALCS. Even though he was pulled after loading the bases in the second, Joe Maddon still had enough confidence in Hellickson to give him the ball in an elimination game.
However, it may be fair to question what will become of Hellickson next season. Even if David Price does not return, the Rays still have Chris Archer, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb headlining their rotation. Alex Colome and Jake Odorizzi are both on the cusp of cracking a major league rotation, and it is possible that the Rays look to sign another starter as a reclamation project.
If Price returns, and with Cobb, Moore and Archer seemingly locks for the rotation next year, Hellickson is still likely to start the season in the rotation. Although he may be entering the season as the fourth or fifth starter, Hellickson’s spot there may be tenuous. Should he begin to struggle as the had to begin this season, it may be possible that Hellickson gets sent to the bullpen.
Heading into next season, Hellickson’s career may be at a crossroads. While he is not likely to struggle as much as he had this past season, Hellickson may not be the same pitcher he appeared to be in 2011 and 2012. The biggest key is likely to be whether or not Hellickson can begin to trust his stuff again. When he was just pitching and trusting his pitches during that solid ten start run, Hellickson looked close to the form he displayed in previous years. If he is able to do so, not only are the strikeouts likely to increase, but Hellickson may also be able to limit his walks.
Jeremy Hellickson could still be a part of the Rays future, but it is not going to be handed to him. After his performance last year and with the prospects coming through the pipeline, he may need to prove himself all over again. James Shields was in a similar situation following the 2010 season. Can Hellickson follow in his path and come back from his 2013 struggles with a breakout year?