This offseason, everyone is pretty confident that they know what the Rays’ big move is going to be: a trade of David Price for a package of some of the best prospects in baseball. Given the way the Rays traded James Shields and Matt Garza with a couple years of team control remaining, we have no reason to think that Price will be any different–except for the fact that Price is better than both of them and could command an even larger return. At the end of the day, though, the Rays are going to assess their options and weigh the offers to they receive before determining whether Price is of more value to them as the ace of their rotation or as a trade chip. One part of that could be listening on offers for another one of their pitchers, Jeremy Hellickson. Is there a chance that the Rays could trade Hellickson while keeping Price?
Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press broke down Hellickson as a possible target for the Minnesota Twins this offseason. He raises a very interesting point regarding how Hellickson’s salary in his first year of arbitration relates to Price.
"One way to buy another year of Price’s services might be to make Hellickson available as he heads toward his first crack at arbitration and a projected 2014 salary of $3.3 million. That would effectively offset the $3 million raise Price figures to get via arbitration while opening a rotation spot for right-hander Jake Odorizzi."
Jeremy Hellickson is hitting arbitration for the first time this offseason, and he is not going to be so cheap anymore. $3.3 million is real money, and while that is a fraction of what Price is making, every dollar counts for the Rays as they try to build a contending team within their budget. Nevertheless, there is no reason why the Rays can’t afford both Hellickson and Price while still making their share of low-cost offseason moves. Price isn’t getting traded because the Rays can’t pay him $13 million next year (plus $4 million in deferred salary), but because they know it’s extremely unlikely that they can lock him up long-term and trading him might be the best way to guarantee their team future success. What really stands out more between Price and Hellickson is that Hellickson has just one more year under team control than Price. That seems strange because Price debuted in 2008 while Hellickson came up in 2010, but the Rays were able to squeeze another year out of Price by holding him back in the minors until late May while they let Hellickson begin 2011 in their rotation. They can’t possibly regret their decision with Hellickson–he did win the 2011 Rookie of the Year, after all–but now Hellickson is not so far from free agency and they have to react accordingly. And by the way, Scott Boras is his agent, making an extension extremely unlikely. Add in the fact that Hellickson is coming off his worst year in the major leagues by far, and it looks like there is a real case to be made to trade him if a team gives them a strong offer.
The issue with trading Hellickson, however, is that the Rays have to feel good about him rebounding. Hellickson’s numbers in 2013, a 5.17 ERA in 174 innings pitched, were in sharp contrast to his 3.06 ERA his first two-plus seasons in the major leagues. But looking at simply the ERA doesn’t tell nearly the entire story. Hellickson struck out 7.0 batters per 9 innings while walking just 2.6 per 9, both of which were career bests. He also improved his home runs allowed per 9 innings a tick from 1.3 in 2012 to 1.2 in 2013 as he delivered his best seasons by the metrics of FIP and xFIP even as his ERA stayed frighteningly high. In addition, all that improvement came despite Hellickson having bizarre issues with his arsenal that eventually led to his brief demotion to the minors to clear his head. For whatever reason, Hellickson lost his fastball command in the second half of the year, and his performance suffered. But Hellickson’s changeup continued to be an excellent pitch while his curveball flashed dominance more than ever before, and if his fastball location issues are a blip on the radar, he could wind up being an even better pitcher than he was before. The Rays believed in Hellickson to start him ALDS Game 4 despite all of his issues. That tells you everything you need to know. They wholeheartedly believe that he will recover, and with Price departing, Hellickson will be a big piece of their rotation as they hope to move on without him.
The Rays should listen to offers on Jeremy Hellickson this offseason. They would be foolish not to because you never know what a team would offer. But unless the Rays are getting Garza-esque offers for Hellickson, there is no doubt he is staying put. Talented players coming off bad years are not the players the Rays trade–they are the ones they acquire. The cost to acquire Hellickson will not be much less than it would have been a year ago because the Rays’ faith in his talent has not be shaken and they are cautiously optimistic that Hellickson get right back on track in 2014. Jeremy Hellickson is a pitcher teams would love to acquire in the right deal, and the Rays should hear a few offers for Hellickson mixed in with the barrage of offers for Price. However, given the poor year Hellickson just had and the fact that the cost to acquire him remains extremely high, the odds are heavily in favor of Price being the pitcher that gets dealt, and that should suit the Rays just fine.