The Tampa Bay Rays face a familiar problem–too much pitching. Even with Jeremy Hellickson out until at least mid-May, the Rays have nine or ten guys who are capable of holding down a major league rotation spot. The Rays love the situation they are in, but with it comes tough decisions. We have seen the Rays have try to whittle through candidates for the 5th starter job this spring, but their most difficult choice is yet to come. What will they do when Hellickson is ready to come back to the big leagues?
The first four rotation spots are going to go to David Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Chris Archer. Jake Odorizzi is looking more and more like he will take hold of the fifth spot. Odorizzi has looked very good this spring, posting a 2.25 ERA and striking out 5 in his 8.0 innings. More importantly, he has added a split-changeup to his arsenal, and the pitch has shown flashes of dominance. Coming into the spring it seemed that Odorizzi would simply be a back-end of the rotation starter, but the newfound pitch gives hope that he can be more. He learned the pitch from Alex Cobb and will hope to follow in Cobb’s path. Like Odorizzi, Cobb came to the major leagues as a pitcher not thought to have much upside, but his excellent split-change has been a major reason why he has vastly exceeded expectations. If Odorizzi could become Cobb 2.0, the Rays’ rotation will be even scarier–and the Rays will have a tougher predicament when Hellickson returns.
Hellickson looked awful in 2013, posting a 5.17 ERA in 174 innings pitched. After forcing weak contact his entire career, suddenly his command disappeared and everything began to fell apart. It could have been just an outlier year, but the concerns will remain until Hellickson returns to the mound and proves that is the case. The pressure will be on Hellickson the moment he comes back, and there is no guarantee that he can regain his previous form.
You could draw up a scenario in which Odorizzi is very good in his big league time this year. The Rays would have no reason to rush Hellickson in his rehab, but even if they go as slowly as possible, Hellickson will be ready to return in mid-June unless he suffers a setback. When he does indeed come back, Odorizzi could be sent back to Triple-A, but that might not be the best option. The Rays’ offseason has shown that they are going to make a World Series run, so if Odorizzi is throwing the ball well, they could very well want to keep him in the rotation instead of Hellickson. How could the Rays replace a solid pitcher with a question mark?
Hellickson could actually be sent back to the minor leagues without risk, as he does have an option remaining. This could actually be a blessing in disguise for Hellickson, as he could regain his old form and health without the pressure to perform in the big leagues. The Rays could also consider sending Hellickson to the bullpen. However, the former option would make more sense because he would remain stretched out and ready to start for the Rays at a moment’s notice. Overall, this might just present itself as the best option for the Rays if Odorizzi does happen to exceed expectations.
It is surprising that this hasn’t been talked about much, but Hellickson heading to the minor leagues for an extended period of time could be a very real scenario. The first four starters in the Rays’ rotation aren’t going anywhere, and if Odorizzi performs well thanks to his newfound split-change, Andrew Friedman could have a great dilemma on his hands. Situations like this often work themselves out, as an injury to another starter or a poor performance by Odorizzi would provide an easy solution. But the Rays need to prepare themselves because there is a very real chance that they could have to choose between a strong performer in Odorizzi and an uncertainty in Hellickson.