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How Big of a Mistake Was Keeping Jeremy Hellickson After 2012?

By Robbie Knopf
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The Jeremy Hellickson era for the Tampa Bay Rays is officially in the books. After two great seasons, one disastrous year, and a finale that left much to be desired, Hellickson was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Andrew Velazquez and Justin Williams. The sad part, though, is that we know that the Rays easily could have gotten more for their promising right-hander.

After 2012, as rumors swirled around James Shields, Hellickson’s name came up plenty as well. In fact, according to Jon Heyman at the time, the Rays were actually getting more calls about Hellickson than Shields. That offseason, Hellickson was coming off an excellent encore to his 2011 season that saw him win AL Rookie of the Year, and he had four years of team control remaining. He didn’t have the ace tag like Shields did, but he nevertheless had a chance to net an even higher trade return, as I described two years ago this month.

"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."

From that standpoint, especially with the benefit of hindsight, it seems like the Rays erred significantly by holding onto Hellickson. However, even back then it was apparent that there was another aspect to the situation.

"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 argument for why the Rays made a huge mistake is pretty clear. The Rays could have gotten something similar to the return of Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi that they got for Shields, and they also would have gotten much better results from the pitcher they kept. After 2013, the Rays could have easily traded Shields away for another huge package of prospects and gone with a rotation of David Price, Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, and one of the pitching prospects they acquired. However, there are two major issues with this scenario: Wil Myers and money.

When the Kansas City Royals offered the Rays Wil Myers in exchange for James Shields, people thought the Rays were getting a steal. There is no indication that the Royals were going to give up Myers in exchange for Hellickson. They wanted a frontline pitcher, and Hellickson had not get proven himself as such.

With that in mind, even if Hellickson had more trade value than Shields, it is unlikely that the Rays were going to get a Rookie of the Year candidate for 2013. Maybe they could have gotten a player like Rymer Liriano of the San Diego Padres, but even he was a tremendous step back from Myers at the time. More risk came along with Hellickson than with Shields, and he was going to yield riskier prospects because of that. The Rays got a once-in-a-lifetime deal for Shields, and they weren’t going to get it for Hellickson.

We can also say that Shields’ could have gotten a significantly less return after 2013 compared to after 2012. The bigger issue, though, is that the Rays were going to hard-pressed to have both David Price and Shields on their payroll in 2013. There is no chance that they would have had the money for all of their acquisitions for that year like James Loney, Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson, Luke Scott, and Roberto Hernandez. They paid those players a total of $15.45 million, but suddenly they would have had $9.72 million less to play with.

We can certainly say that some of those moves did work out as hoped, but even Johnson and Scott helped the Rays keep Myers at Triple-A until he was ready while Hernandez helped them ensure Chris Archer was prepared. Especially in a world where the Rays received a Liriano instead of a Myers, they easily could have been forced to call up prospects before they were ready and watch them flop. Shields was significantly better than Hellickson in 2013, but the gains from that swap would have been offset by losses elsewhere on the roster.

We can say with a reasonable amount of certainty that the Rays would not have made the playoffs in 2013 had they traded Jeremy Hellickson before James Shields. Maybe their minor league system would be better, but they would have been in a frenzy the last two seasons because of worse depth and three straight years of missing the postseason would have been a bitter pill to swallow. The Rays wish that Jeremy Hellickson had done better the last two years, but they still can’t regret keeping him over Shields. There is no guarantee that they would be better off right now had they traded him two years ago.

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