Tonight, Jeremy Hellickson will take the ball for his eighth start of the season for the Tampa Bay Rays. Arthroscopic elbow surgery prevented him from taking the mound until June, and he did not arrive in the major leagues to stay until late July. In his limited big league time, however, he has pitched quite well. Overall, he has a 2.62 ERA and a 33-9 strikeout to walk ratio in 7 starts and 38 innings pitched. The slightly over five innings per start is a little concerning, but he has tossed at least six in three of his last four outings. At times, he has looked as dominant as ever, regaining his command of his fastball and changeup to go along with a continuously improving curveball. There is only one problem with the whole situation: the Rays are going to have a tough time figuring out where Hellickson fits in next season.
Counting tonight, Hellickson is likely to have six starts remaining this year, and if he continues pitching well, he could make say $4.15 million through arbitration after making $3.65 million this season. Hellickson is no longer cheap, and he has just two years remaining under team control. He does have a rotation spot lined up to begin next season as Matt Moore rehabs from Tommy John Surgery, but what about after that? The Rays are comfortable with a rotation of Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi, and Moore, and they have plenty of depth beyond that in the minor leagues. Hellickson no longer looks like a long-term piece for this team, and it makes no sense to bump Smyly or Odorizzi to the minor leagues. What can the Rays do to remedy the situation?
If Hellickson had continued his 2013 struggles, there would be no problem now. The Rays would be hoping to deal Hellickson in Scott Kazmir-like fashion at the August 31st waiver trade deadline before his value got any lower, and they would take just about anything they were offered. Even if it is only eight starts, however, we are starting to see that Hellickson has the ability to be an effective big league pitcher again. Last season, even amid his disastrous year, he set career-highs in strikeout rate and walk rate while improving his homer rate from 2012. This year, he has taken all of those improvements a little further, and combining them with a renewed ability to locate his pitches has been a dangerous combination for opposing hitters. His BAbip is low again (.271), his strand rate (82.0%) is identical to what it was in his rookie season, and the only major spot for regression is his homer rate. Teams believed in the pitcher that Hellickson once was, with the rumor mill putting him alongside James Shields as a Rays pitcher teams could not ask enough about after the 2012 season. The Rays’ return will not come to close to what they would have gotten, but if Hellickson can continue to perform, there would be plenty of interest if he is put on the trade market.
For the last month of the season, the most important pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays could very well be Jeremy Hellickson. He is pitching not only to help his team win, but to raise his trade value and give the Rays additional options once the year concludes. Pitching injuries are inevitable–in fact, Hellickson’s surgery created room for Jake Odorizzi in the Rays rotation. With the Rays’ Triple-A pitching depth as good as it has been in years, though, a trade of Hellickson is a near-certainty. Let’s enjoy what could be Jeremy Hellickson’s last month with the Tampa Bay Rays and look forward to the rumors circling about another Rays pitcher this offseason.